Solving sea row crucial for China-ASEAN ties

BRUNEI - The territorial dispute in the South China Sea between China and some ASEAN countries is an issue that could potentially destabilise peace and growth the region is currently enjoying.

Vice President of The Brunei China Friendship Association (BCFA) Dr Muhd Firdaus Abdul Rahman made the comment on Saturday during the 2013 China-ASEAN Think Tank Strategic Dialogue in Nanning.

Speaking during the session, he stressed how the South China Sea dispute is a potential concern despite improving relations between China and ASEAN after years of cultivation, and offered suggestions on how the differences can be settled.

"Despite the fact that the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has been in effect for three years, the South China Sea dispute and threat still looms large in the region, and is a time bomb and a potential concern," said the vice president.

"Apart from fast tracking the economic transformation of all the (ASEAN) countries, we must also promote peace among the countries, and focus on creative, balanced, inclusive and sustainable development, so as to create a fair, just and vibrant CAFTA."

While elaborating on his suggestions, Dr Muhd Firdaus stressed the importance of ensuring that no one is left behind in this development boom.

"We must ensure that none of the member countries are lagging behind in development," he said. He elaborated on this to The Brunei Times by adding, "When any country lags behind the rest of their peers in development, it will make it more difficult for them to enjoy the benefit that comes along with being part of the FTA, which is why we must ensure all countries can catch up."

Dr Muhd Firdaus then pointed out another aspect - the income of people in the region - as another factor that could aid in defusing the tension.

"When income and living standards continue to improve among the countries, it will also reduce dissenting voices and grievances, which can become a motivating factor for people in the region to yearn for peace and harmony in view of the potential betterment of their lives."

During the dialogue, the vice president conceded that the South China Sea dispute will not be resolved easily, and that the interference of other countries into the region has resulted in further escalations of conflict.

However, he reminded countries involved in the South China Sea dispute that prevailing peace and cooperation within the region is the factor responsible for driving growth in all the countries, and political consultation, rather than aggressive behaviour, is the key towards the stability that all parties desire. Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei are claimants over the South China Sea.

The 2013 China-ASEAN Think Tank Strategic Dialogue, in its sixth edition this year, is an annual discussion conducted among researchers and scholars from the think tanks and strategy centres of China and ASEAN countries.

The main objective of the dialogue is to confer and brainstorm on issues that are of concerns to the 11 countries within the 10+1 trade bloc. The dialogue began on August 30, and ended yesterday.