It is said that every crisis presents an opportunity, and the turn of events in the South China Sea represents both — a crisis and an opportunity. The crisis is China’s development of islands and shoals within the Spratlys group, followed by last week’s US navy trip through the area. The opportunity is one that Thailand can grasp, if it dares. Next week, the Chinese air force will be at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base for a three-week military exercise. The challenge for the government is to inject some diplomacy into the Thai-Chinese war games with talk about regional security.
This is an opportunity for Thailand because the country is not directly involved in the dispute over the South China Sea. In the past, Thailand and the Foreign Ministry have acted as an honest broker. This country is largely responsible for actions that have successively cooled tensions. The avenue of authority is simple enough: Thailand is a member of Asean, which has five members who claim areas of the South China Sea. It has a growing friendship with China, which lays claim to all areas that are concomitantly claimed by the five Asean countries.
Thailand already has experience, and earned respect, on this troubling issue. It has been more than a decade since Thailand convinced Asean members and Beijing to sign the Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Promulgated in 2002, this document never was intended as a solution to territorial claims and disputes. Rather, it was touted as a holding action.
The ultimate target for Asean is an agreement to prevent or at least limit hostile action in the tinderbox regions of the South China Sea. There is even an official name given to this long attempt at a formal agreement: Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. There isn’t full agreement, even within Asean, on what the code of conduct should specify, but it’s close. The real issue, as August talks in Tianjin among senior Foreign Ministry officials showed, is the reluctance of China to deal with Asean as a group.
That is nothing new. Beijing’s official stance has always been that it will discuss maritime disputes only in bilateral talks. But in diplomatic terms, Thailand’s involvement has already moved China away from that stance.