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September 21, 2017

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Thailand's role in finding South China Sea solution

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."

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