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ASEAN Wants Direct Negotiations with China: Setback for US?

In what is widely being seen as a setback for the U.S. agenda in Asia, ASEAN countries said that they don’t want to “internationalize” their maritime disputes with China and want the issue addressed in direct talks between the ASEAN nations and China. This is said to frustrate top U.S. officials who hoped to raise the issue this week in the next of Asia’s interminable rounds of overlapping summits, the East Asia Summit.

“The Asean leaders decided that they would not internationalise the South China Sea from now on, that they will focus this entirely within the existing Asean-China mechanisms,” Kao Kim Hourn, a senior Cambodian official, told the FT.

The timing may be frustrating, but diplomatic clocks in Asia often run slow, especially where ASEAN is concerned. The collective likes to move on the basis of unanimous consensus and the different interests of its ten members and the strong rivalries and sensitivities within the organization mean that change comes slowly to the group. It also makes the group’s statements and intentions very hard to read; bitter disagreements are often hidden by bland and harmonious platitudes.

However, against that background, it’s interesting to note that there is perhaps less than meets the eye to this “setback.” First, ASEAN still wants China to negotiate over maritime issues with the whole group rather than picking each country off separately in one-on-one negotiations. That’s a reasonable compromise and would represent a significant step for China.

Second, the U.S. doesn’t have to be in the room for its weight to be felt. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines will enter negotiations knowing that the U.S. doesn’t want to see them pushed around. That will make a difference, and countries who don’t like whatever deals China offers will be able to resist.

Third, the U.S. doesn’t actually want a crisis in Asia. It wants China and its neighbors to sort things out on an equitable basis and it wants China to internalize the lesson that to succeed in diplomacy one must learn to play well with others. Moving toward a compromise with ASEAN is from this perspective a good thing, not a bad thing.

ASEAN diplomacy is anything but transparent; it’s going to take patience and persistence to make progress. But the U.S. should remember that its goal is an equitable solution to the maritime issues in the region that respects the rights of the ASEAN nations. The goal is to integrate China not to isolate it.

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