IT HAS almost become a "sport" of sorts to wait and watch in anticipation for the chairman's statement of the Asean summit. The normally pedestrian document does not get much attention beyond the mandatory press coverage of the summit.
But the Phnom Penh summit in 2012 changed the way Asean and the world view the statement. The non-issuance of the foreign ministers' communique that year - for the first time in Asean's history - was due to disagreements on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. It raised questions on the unity of the 10-member regional organisation, and China's undue influence on some of the member states.
In the run-up to this week's 26th Asean Summit, the Philippine government lobbied hard for a united front against China's reclamation activities in the SCS. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario urged Asean to "assert its leadership, centrality and solidarity, and show the world that it resolved to act in the common interest". The Philippines' hope for Asean's unequivocal support was dashed when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in his opening remarks as the Asean chair, called for cooler heads to prevail. He called upon Asean to "peacefully manage differences closer to home, including overlapping maritime claims, without increasing tensions". In addition, he urged Asean to address the developments in the SCS "in a proactive, but also in a positive and constructive way".
Thus, it came as a surprise that the chairman's statement of the 26th Asean Summit, which concluded in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, contained some of the strongest wordings on the SCS since 2012. Representing the consensus view of the Asean leaders, the statement noted: "We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea."
The statement is notable for three aspects.
- First, there is a noticeably firmer tone in discussing the SCS. The statements have evolved from "discussed the situation in the SCS" in the 22nd and 23rd summits and "expressed serious concerns" and "remained concerned" in the 24th and 25th summits, to "share the serious concerns" in the recently concluded summit.
- Second, the expressions on the SCS have gone from general to specific actions. The past four summits had been careful to refer to the SCS in general terms, using euphemisms such as "ongoing developments" and "the situation in the SCS". The latest statement makes an implicit and direct reference to "land reclamation".
- Third, the statement linked the land reclamation activities to the erosion of trust and confidence and suggested that these actions may "undermine peace, security and stability in the SCS".
The framing of the SCS disputes makes a clear inference to China and, more importantly, alludes to Chinese activities as undermining trust and confidence in the region. This is perhaps the clearest and strongest rebuke Asean has conveyed to China over the SCS disputes.
China is, understandably, less than pleased with the statement. Its Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Hong Lei, announced that China was "extremely concerned". China is right to feel aggrieved. To be fair, China is not the first, nor is it the only SCS claimant, to undertake land reclamation works in the disputed Spratly Islands. Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have done so as well.
In addition, China is justified to do as it sees fit in areas within its sovereign control. Its actions may have done irreparable damage to the fragile marine ecosystem, but China has not infringed on the sovereign rights of others.
Nevertheless, China misses the point in brushing off the statement through its vigorous defence of its sovereign rights. To understand Asean's intentions, China needs to put itself in Asean's shoes. It is one thing for a small country like the Philippines to build an outpost or surveillance station in the SCS, but it is an entirely different strategic proposition when the region's largest military power constructs several landing strips across the SCS which could easily be used for military purposes.
While China is justified in exercising its sovereign right, it should also be sensitive to the region's growing unease with China's inconsistent strategic behaviour, which in turn amplifies a sense of vulnerability among its neighbours.
It defies comprehension that while China is set to consolidate its position as Asean's top trade partner and has set the target of increasing bilateral trade to US$500 billion (S$659 billion) by the year's end, it is, at the same time, a source of insecurity.
The region's strategic perception of China cannot be papered over by economic inducements. In fact, positive initiatives such as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will do little to help China repair its bruised image if its actions in the SCS - no matter however justified - continues to raise suspicion of China's strategic intentions.
If left to fester, the SCS dispute will chip away at the goodwill and trust Asean holds for China. The 26th Asean Summit chairman's statement is a sign of Asean's growing concern about China's management of its political-strategic relations with the region, which is diametrically opposed to the strong and positive economic relations.
China does itself a disservice by sidetracking the Code of Conduct (COC) talks and by insisting that the disputes be settled bilaterally. In a similar vein, the Asean claimants' singular focus on the COC talks provides little incentive for China to commit to the talks. Both sides are, thus, talking past each other. A parallel framework of concurrent COC and direct talks may satisfy both sides and provide the impetus to rebuild strategic trust and return stability to the SCS.
Asean and China should not let the SCS dispute define their relations. But both sides cannot ignore the damage the SCS dispute has wrought on their bilateral relations. Given a choice, Asean would prefer to stand with China rather than to stand up to China. The chairman's statement is not a clarion call to rally against China. On the contrary, it should be read as an urgent plea for sincere and earnest efforts to work towards a peaceful management of the rising tensions in the SCS.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.