Thailand's role in solving the South China Sea impasse

Ratified by 10 ASEAN countries, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea serves as a binding guideline for member countries to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means. China and ASEAN have made many calls forĀ an effective implementation of the guideline amidst escalating territorial tensions over the years. As the current coordinator of ASEAN-China ties, the burden of responsibility falls upon Thailand to help mend frayed relations between China and member ASEAN nations and strengthen unity in the regional group.

THAILAND - Some members - like the Philippines - might be furious as China and ASEAN moved to compromise over the controversial South China Sea dispute, but they must play along for the benefit of peace and stability in the region.

A tough stance and fierce criticism employed by the Philippines and many other ASEAN members caused a diplomatic disaster for the regional grouping last year in Phnom Penh when they failed to build a consensus on how to address the issue. ASEAN for the first time in its history could not issue a joint communique after the annual ministerial meeting.

Nobody wanted a recurrence of such a situation this year. The dispute over this single issue should not dismantle the entire group and its creditability - or relations with major partner China.

Indeed, Beijing has had territorial disputes with members of ASEAN - Manila, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - for a long time as they claimed many overlapping areas in the sea. Tension, confrontation and even clashes have taken place many times over past years. The issue has been a sensitive aspect of relations between China and ASEAN for a long time too. Some ASEAN members no longer refer to the maritime area in the Pacific as the South China Sea anymore, but call it the "Eastern Sea".

There are different approaches among concerned parties on how to deal with the disputes over the South China Sea. Beijing made clear, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, that China has territorial disputes with some, not all, ASEAN members. It wished to settle the conflict on a bilateral basis, while many ASEAN members wanted to see unity within the group, speaking the same voice against China - but many other members considered the issue none of their business.

It's true that the South China Sea is not the sole issue in ASEAN-China relations but it's not a minor part, either. As the Thai Foreign Ministry's Permanent Secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow said "we cannot move the ties ahead unless we overcome the problem in the South China Sea."

ASEAN wanted a "code of conduct" as the binding guideline for good practice and a peace guarantee in the South China Sea for a long time, but the dream has not come true. The best they could do over the past decade was a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, made in Phnom Penh in 2002.

The document was known in diplomatic jargon as the DOC, signed by 10 of the then-ASEAN foreign ministers and the Chinese special envoy and vice foreign minister Wang Yi, who is now foreign minister of China.

The DOC admitted there were territorial disputes, and Article 4 made clear the parties concerned undertook to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means - "without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea".

However, there remained disputes, tension, confrontation and violence over the past decade following the DOC. Both China and ASEAN called for its full and effective implementation. Rounds of talks, meetings by senior officials and working groups were called to settle implementation but it still did not work.

ASEAN, therefore, came to the conclusion that the organisation badly needed a binding agreement on a code of conduct with China. The burden fell on Thailand, as it is the current coordinator of ASEAN-China ties.

Thailand is in a good position to do the job as it is not a claimant and is comfortable dealing with all parties because of its soft manner. The official consultations on the code of conduct China agreed upon during a meeting in Brunei this week were the work of the Thai team which took the coordinator's job last year. Sitting down to talk on codes of conduct is not a diplomatic breakthrough - but can be regarded as an achievement.