S.E.A. View

Hang together or hang separately?

With the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) expected to deliver its ruling on the Philippines-China dispute over maritime jurisdiction in the South China Sea (SCS) as early as next month, China has embarked on a diplomatic offensive to rally international support to downplay the court's decision.

To this end, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently caused a furore within Asean circles when the official Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying that "China has reached a four-point consensus with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos". Details of the consensus were summarily released on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website.

The consensus was reported to include these four points : the SCS dispute is between individual states rather than Asean as a bloc; these countries should be left to settle the dispute by themselves; they should do so without use or threat of force; and China and Asean should cooperate to ensure peace in the South China Sea.

However, the consensus was soon called into question by Cambodia, one of its erstwhile strongest allies in the region. Its government spokesman, Mr Phay Siphan, was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post as saying that "there has been no agreement or discussions, just a visit by a Chinese Foreign Minister".

This was not Beijing's only setback. China was also called out in a similar fashion by Fiji, a major diplomatic player in the South Pacific. Its Foreign Minister, Mr Inoke Kubuabola, was reported by Xinhua to have supported China's position in the SCS in a joint press release on April 13. However, the Fijian government was quick to set the record straight by affirming that the press release "incorrectly depicts Fijian policy towards China's territorial claims in the South China Sea".

The swift and irrefutable retractions by Cambodia and Fiji called into question the veracity of the Chinese-sponsored "consensus" on the SCS. To date, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has remained quiet on the retractions, further undermining the standing of the so-called consensus.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Despite these setbacks, Beijing continues to trumpet support from Bangladesh, Belarus, Brunei, Gambia, India, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Pakistan, Poland and Russia on its SCS position.

Of these 10 countries, only Brunei is a claimant state.

The move to corral support from extra-regional parties is also perplexing. China has been vigilant to guard against internationalising the SCS issue. Yet, in reaching out to countries thousands of miles away from the SCS, China has in fact done just the opposite.

Asean has to take a firm stand on the SCS not because it wants to favour one claimant over another, but in order to protect the integrity and unity of the 10-member organisation. If Asean shows that it is susceptible to any kind of external interference, it would lose its credibility and in the process declare itself "fair game" to any external powers. Benjamin Franklin's advice that "we must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately" is particularly pertinent for the Asean leaders.

Far from boosting its position on the SCS, China's efforts to court support are viewed negatively as an effort to pile undue pressure on Asean to distance itself from the PCA ruling. This might be wishful thinking on the part of Beijing for two reasons.

First, Asean states have consistently affirmed the rule of law in the management of the SCS issues. For Asean to stay silent on the issue at this crucial juncture will be tantamount to dismissing the relevance and importance of international law.

Second, if Asean states, as a grouping or individually, had not seriously considered making its views on the PCA ruling public, they might be inclined to do so now to unmistakeably underline the point that Asean will not bow to external pressure.

Asean's unity and independence will be on full display in July, when the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting is scheduled to be held, and the joint communique will be scrutinised for its tone and language on the SCS. Even the slightest toning down from past statements will be read as caving into Chinese pressure. Thus, Chinese diplomatic efforts geared towards whitewashing the PCA ruling in Asean discussions may have brought about the opposite effect.

Asean has to take a firm stand on the SCS not because it wants to favour one claimant over another, but in order to protect the integrity and unity of the 10-member organisation. If Asean shows that it is susceptible to any kind of external interference, it would lose its credibility and, in the process, declare itself "fair game" to any external powers. Benjamin Franklin's advice that "we must all hang together or, assuredly, we shall all hang separately" is particularly pertinent for the Asean leaders.

The spotlight will be particularly glaring for the incumbent Asean Chair. Laos is one of the Asean states most prone to "strategic capture" by an external party. Its support for the four-point consensus lends additional credence to this perception. However, it is on Laos' shoulders that the future of Asean rests. A repeat of the 2012 Phnom Penh debacle, where Asean failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its history, will deal a big blow to Asean's cohesion and cast a gloomy prognosis of its ability to defend itself against external vested interests.

Events in the past week have turned the SCS into a test of Asean's ability to hold its own. If China persists to press its considerable political and economic levers on Laos - and other Asean states - to stymie internal Asean discussions on the SCS, Beijing would effectively break Asean. A divided and weakened Asean will be of little strategic value to China as it could just as easily succumb to pressures from other major powers.

•The writer 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 May 12, 2016, with the headline 'Hang together or hang separately?'. Print Edition | Subscribe