Brunei must employ 'quiet diplomacy' to defuse regional tensions: expert
Brunei, the Asean Chair, must employ "quiet diplomacy" to defuse tensions over the South China Sea territorial dispute that could threaten the stability of the region, a leading expert on the issue said yesterday.
Munir Majid, head of the Southeast Asia International Affairs Programme at the London School of Economics, said Brunei should solicit the support of Asean countries to prevent an escalation of tensions in the South China Sea.
"They need to impart the message that there should be no more grandstanding, no big announcements that will not help diffuse the tensions," he said in an interview at Universiti Brunei Darussalam.
Brunei has said pursuing a code of conduct (COC) - outlining conflict prevention measures - was its main priority for the 10-nation bloc in 2013.
Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have claims to parts of the sea, one of the world's most important shipping lanes and which is believed to be rich in fossil fuels. But China claims sovereignty over more than 80 per cent of the sea, which has soured relations with the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which accuse China of becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claim.
"At every Asean meeting (this year) there should be an ongoing message throughout to say let's work on the code of conduct to make sure things are calm so the possibility of escalation through miscalculation does not occur," Munir said.
Cambodia's 2012 Asean chairmanship was marked by sharp regional discord over the affair. As a close ally of China, it was accused of resisting efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to adopt a more aggressive position against the Chinese.
In a bid to rescue failed diplomacy at the Asean Foreign Ministers' meeting last July, Indonesia floated a draft of the COC comprising conflict prevention and management measures, including an incident hotline should conflicts arise, to prevent situations from worsening.
"(Indonesian foreign minister) Marty Natalegawa described it best when he said (the COC represents) the rules of the road. If anything were to happen - a clash between a Chinese fisherman and a Filipino patrol boat - what do you do? You don't shoot."
Munir said that while it was unlikely there would be a simple solution to the sovereignty issues, Asean claimants and China could still cooperate on joint development of the disputed areas.
"Brunei needs to highlight to Asean members and China that a commitment to cooperate will benefit all," he said, adding that conflict would damage decades of friendly relations and economic cooperation, with East Asia poised to become the centre of the global economy.
"As a small country - although it is a disputant - it might be easier (for Brunei) to bring (parties) together. You have no hidden motives and you're not trying to play the big chap," Munir said.
"My fear is Brunei might feel it's too small and that they don't want to be too involved or antagonise unnecessarily."