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Demystifying Asean's 'performance' in disputes

The South China Sea will take centre stage again at the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) which starts in Vientiane on Saturday. The 49th AMM is the first official Asean meeting after the announcement of the Arbitral Tribunal award in the Philippines v China case on the South China Sea. The meeting also comes on the back of several recent Asean setbacks.

For instance, Asean consensus was found wanting again when the harsh realities of geopolitics prevented it from issuing a joint statement on the tribunal's award.

This was the second instance in the short span of two weeks that Asean had failed to speak with one voice. It is still reeling from the aftermath of the Kunming debacle, when an Asean-China Special Foreign Ministers' Meeting held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of their dialogue partnership ended in disarray, marred by the last-minute withdrawal of an agreed position on the South China Sea.

This begs the question of Asean's credibility. How does it measure up in the South China Sea disputes? We examine five perceptions and criticisms of Asean:

1. ASEAN FAILED TO ISSUE A JOINT STATEMENT ON THE ARBITRAL TRIBUNAL AWARD

Yes, Asean did not deliver on the joint statement, but that in itself is not a sufficiently fair benchmark by which to judge the grouping. To begin with, it is neutral and does not take sides on the merits of the disputes. Although four member states are parties to the dispute, it has never favoured any member state.

China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a logistics supply drill in May near the James Shoal area in the South China Sea.
China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a logistics supply drill in May near the James Shoal area in the South China Sea. PHOTO: AFP

Asean's failure to issue the joint statement should be seen in the context of its neutral stance. It is within each member state's rights to "break ranks" as the tribunal's case does not involve Asean as an institution. Thus, any aspersions cast on its unity are misplaced.

China would be doing itself the biggest disservice by continuing to sideline Asean. Marginalising Asean will disincentivise the Asean claimant states from supporting Asean processes and nudge them closer to extra-regional parties such as the United States and Japan.

However, neutrality does not absolve it of all responsibilities in the disputes. Asean has a duty to ensure that the parties to the disputes, which include China, adhere to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which, among other provisions, calls for the peaceful resolution of conflict.

2. ASEAN HAS FAILED TO RESOLVE THE MARITIME DISPUTES

It is not Asean's remit to resolve the disputes. The onus is on the claimants. Asean's role is confined to confidence-building measures and efforts to de-escalate tensions among the claimants.

The Declaration on the Code of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) was intended as a binding agreement to stabilise relations in the South China Sea, but was eventually watered down to a political document. Since the DOC was signed in 2002, there have been 17 joint working groups and 12 senior officials' meetings on implementing it, but these efforts have yet to produce the desired outcome.

3. THE SOUTH CHINA SEA IS NOT AN ASEAN ISSUE

This is a Chinese position which finds support among some quarters within Asean. China believes that the disputes are of a bilateral nature and do not concern Asean. China is right on the first point, but should be corrected on the second. The South China Sea registers highly on Asean's agenda because it maintains an interest in regional peace and stability as well as freedom of navigation and overflight, and not in the maritime claims.

4. ASEAN UNITY IS IN PERIL

The signs of Asean disunity are visible. It would be all too easy to blame China, but Asean should look within itself for failing to hold its own. Consensus is a high threshold that gives a member state veto over the collective interest of the remaining nine member states.

Divisions over the South China Sea are a wake-up call for Asean to review its modus operandi to make it more effective and functional. The occasion of its 50th anniversary next year should be used to review the Asean Charter with an eye towards giving Asean a higher degree of collective interest and efficiency.

5. ASEAN IS 'CAPTURED' BY EXTRA-REGIONAL PARTIES

In standing firm on the South China Sea issue, external commentators have mistakenly concluded that Asean operates under the influence of "external parties". This misperception disregards regional anxieties on the rising tensions in the waters.

Asean will face a crucial test in this weekend's AMM and the Asean Regional Forum. Almost instinctively, China will lean on its Asean allies to ensure that the South China Sea does not find its way into the AMM's joint communique, to save face. This would be shortsighted as the damage to China's reputation will be high, with Beijing held accountable for "breaking" Asean yet again.

China will be deceiving itself with its spirited defence of its "no acceptance, no participation, no recognition and no implementation" policy. Such bravado would find little support outside of the world's most populous nation.

To move forward, China needs to accept the reality of a "new political normal" that the Arbitral Tribunal has transformed the legal and political landscape of the South China Sea. It is unrealistic for Beijing to behave as if the clock stopped on July 11, 2016.

China would be doing itself the biggest disservice by continuing to sideline Asean. Marginalising Asean will disincentivise the Asean claimant states from supporting Asean processes and nudge them closer to extra-regional parties such as the United States and Japan. On the contrary, China should view Asean as part of the solution and not the problem.

The ball is now firmly in China's court and Asean would relish the opportunity to recast its political- strategic ties in a new light against the realities of the new political normal of post-July 12, 2016.

Asean and China should not allow the South China Sea to define their bilateral relations. At the same time, both sides should be cognisant that the disputes have taken a toll on their friendship.

Urgent and immediate steps are needed to ensure that a quarter of a century of hard work and trust will not be in vain.

Tang Siew Mun is head of the Asean Studies Centre at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'Demystifying Asean's 'performance' in disputes'. Print Edition | Subscribe