Earlier this month, China scored a diplomatic victory when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rolled over on criticizing its activity in the South China Sea by issuing a communique that skirted the issue of Beijing’s island-building and militarization. This week, more signs abound that China is on a roll, as rival claimants beat a hasty path to Beijing to hash out their disagreements bilaterally.
First, via Reuters, comes the news that Vietnam—once one of the most openly confrontational countries toward China—has agreed on a joint communique with Beijing to keep tensions in check on the path toward a long-term solution:
After what China said were “positive” talks on the South China Sea last week between President Xi Jinping and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, the joint statement stressed the need to control differences.
Both countries agreed to “manage and properly control maritime disputes, not take any actions to complicate the situation or expand the dispute, and maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea”, it added.
The document, released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said both had a “candid and deep” exchange of views on maritime issues, and agreed to use an existing border talks mechanism to look for a lasting resolution.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported over the weekend that China and the Philippines are beginning bilateral talks on the South China Sea this week. And while officials in Manila are cautioning that the dispute will not be resolved overnight, President Duterte has sounded an upbeat note, even suggesting that a lucrative deal could be in the works to share the sea’s energy resources with China and Vietnam.
None of this means that the thorny South China Sea dispute will come to a swift conclusion, but the talks are significant in their own right. China has always insisted that its maritime disputes be settled on a bilateral basis, contra the Obama administration’s efforts to use ASEAN as a multilateral proxy to challenge Chinese claims. Now, after 8 years of Obama and four months of Trump, many of China’s neighbors have come to a similar conclusion: with the U.S. policy process visibly hobbled, they might as well fend for themselves and cut a deal with Beijing.