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Has Beijing really ‘turned the page’ on South China Sea ruling?

Beijing appeared triumphant on Thursday after a regional summit concluded in Laos without adopting a draft statement on the South China Sea disputes.

State media, including Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the official People’s Daily, on Friday described it as a diplomatic win for China while a senior diplomat declared that “the page had been turned over” regarding the July 12 ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague that rebuked China’s historic claims in the South China Sea.

China expected to push for maritime code to cover South China Sea at Asean talks

Speaking at the conclusion of the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin sounded particularly relieved that none of Southeast Asian nations brought up the international arbitration ruling, which dealt a sweeping blow to Beijing’s expansive claims over much of the disputed waters.

But diplomatic observers cautioned against such upbeat assessments and pointed out that China has actually been subject to mounting pressure in Laos from the United States and Japan, who both insisted repeatedly over the past few days that the ruling at the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague must be binding.

Even Liu admitted that the South China Sea disputes, which had rarely been touched upon in the previous summits, had become a major topic this year.

It was, at best, a respite in long-running tensions between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours and the ruling has become a new starting point for China’s rival claimants to move forward, analysts said.

They also warned that it was not in Beijing’s interest to play up the deep-rooted division among the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has yet again prevented the 10-member grouping reaching a consensus over how to deal with a increasingly assertive China.

“I agree that Beijing scored a small victory in avoiding a rebuke by the summit delegates as a whole,” said Jay Batongbacal, a law professor at the University of the Philippines. “But Asean-China relations turning a new page does not necessarily mean that things will turn out the way China expects.”

Analysts noted that Asean nations had extensive discussions on the maritime disputes during the summit and issued a veiled criticism of China in a joint statement on Wednesday.

Most Asean countries ‘want to stay out of Beijing’s South China Sea dispute with the Philippines’

While China was able to dodge continuing public and open criticism, it would only “ease tensions superficially but not necessarily narrow the differences between disputing States”, Batongbacal said.

“The US and Japanese statements reflect Asean sentiments and act as surrogate voices to their fundamental positions,” he said.

It is an open secret that Cambodia and Laos, which rely heavily on mainland investment, refused to scold Beijing while many other Asean nations are also reluctant to take a tougher stance on China, which is Asean’s top trade partner.

Bonnie Glaser, of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that although Beijing would like to put behind the tribunal ruling once and for all, it is a historical decision that will shape many countries’ policies in future.

“Just because the ruling wasn’t mentioned in the Asean joint statement doesn’t mean that the members are willing to ignore it,” she said.

China and Asean bloc make progress on maritime disputes

Analysts also said despite their willingness to defuse tensions, it remained challenging for China and its rival claimants, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, to break the diplomatic impasse.

Huang Jing, of the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the negotiations between Asean and China over the code of conduct, which started in 2002, may also prove challenging.