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frank ching

China has significantly moderated its attitude toward its neighbours in Southeast Asia, without withdrawing any of its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in Brunei last week for an annual meeting with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said that the new Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping places "great importance" on relations with these neighbours.

Alluding to territorial disputes with several ASEAN countries, Mr. Wang said that China would "try to properly handle issues with some ASEAN countries through friendly consultation."

Meanwhile, in a surprise move, China withdrew its ships from the Scarborough Shoal area in the South China Sea. The Chinese have had this area – which is within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – under their control for the last year after a two-month naval standoff, after which they kept Filipino fishermen out of the area.

The Chinese withdrawal occurred at about the same time as the holding of U.S.-Philippine naval exercises in that general area, but Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin attributed it to "inclement weather" after tropical storm Rumbia blew itself out in the beginning of July. If the Chinese ships do not return in the next few days, it would be a clear signal to Manila and other ASEAN capitals of a significant change in Chinese policy.

If Beijing has launched a more moderate Chinese policy towards ASEAN in general and the Philippines in particular, official Chinese media do not seem to have been given any advance notice.

Thus the overseas edition of the People's Daily, the official Communist party, newspaper, in June threatened the Philippines with a "counterstrike" if it continued to provoke Beijing.

The threat was made in a front-page commentary, which accused Manila of having committed "seven sins," including inviting foreign capital to develop natural resources in contested areas and "internationalization" of the Sino-Philippine dispute.

Chinese pressure over territorial disputes has driven the Philippines – currently one of the weakest countries in the region – to upgrade its military hardware. President Benigno Aquino announced last week that the air force will be able "to defend our territory and make Filipinos feel more secure against foreign intruders, or those who try to shock and pressure them" by the time he steps down in 2016.

The more assertive Chinese policy of the last few years has triggered something of an arms race in Southeast Asia and led to appeals for the United States to maintain its military presence in the region and, to an extent, brought about the American military "pivot to Asia."

The change in Chinese attitude is stark. Last year, Chinese pressure created a deadlock in ASEAN, resulting in no communique being issued after the annual meeting of foreign ministers – the first time in ASEAN history.

China did not want the communique to mention its territorial disputes with ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Cambodia, the 2012 chair, bowed to Chinese demands.

This year, by all accounts, China did not attempt to divide the 10 ASEAN countries and indeed co-operated by agreeing to hold talks in September on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with four ASEAN countries.

The significance of a code of conduct is that it will be legally binding, unlike the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by China and ASEAN in 2002.

China previously said a code of conduct must await the full implementation of the declaration. But Minister Wang indicated that work on the code can proceed "in the process of implementing the Declaration of Conduct," which gives Beijing more room for maneuver.

According to Edwin Lacierda, Mr. Aquino's spokesman, ASEAN has already drafted a code of conduct. This suggests that progress toward an agreement could be swift if China is so minded.

These are certainly early days, but, hopefully new Chinese leadership will return to Beijing's previous policy of a "peaceful rise" or "peaceful development" and seek to regain the trust of Southeast Asians.

All signs are that China is still insisting on resolving territorial issues on a bilateral basis, which pits tiny individual Southeast Asian countries against a giant. If China wants to reassure its neighbors that it is not a bully, one big step would be to accept international dispute resolution mechanisms, such as the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.

Thumbing its nose at international judicial bodies does not fit the image of a growing power willing to assume greater international responsibilities.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.