News analysis

Little room for Asean to move in maritime dispute

There is little doubt about weight of China's clout in its dealings with bloc over S. China Sea issue

The most dramatic element of the just-concluded series of Asean summits in Laos did not come from the actual event. It came from Manila, through the release of photographs showing many Chinese ships in a contested part of the South China Sea about 200km west of the Philippines, which seemed to suggest that reclamation to bolster Chinese claims over the area was going on.

The pictures were released just before regional leaders were due to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the annual Asean-China Summit. Yet on Wednesday, none of them - including the Philippine president - raised the issue of abiding by the landmark July 12 arbitration ruling that invalidated China's claims over most of the strategic waterway.

Amid the small talk on the red carpet and loud pronouncements on the growth of Asean-China ties, there was little doubt about the weight of Chinese clout in its dealings with the 10-nation bloc.

Within Asean, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of the South China Sea that overlap territory that China says sits inside the boundary of its "nine-dash line". While China insists that these disputes should not involve Asean as a whole, the bloc maintains it has geostrategic interest in managing tension in surrounding waters.

Unlike during the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting in July, this week's summit was in no real danger of fracturing over disagreement on the maritime dispute. But Asean's joint statement with China after their Wednesday summit reflects how little room Asean has to move in.

Since the diverse bloc operates by consensus, China leans on its allies to stop the grouping from taking a strong unified stance on the South China Sea issue. For this reason, the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting joint communique in July did not mention the tribunal ruling but referred to "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes".

That phrase, derived after protracted negotiations, did not even make it into Wednesday's Asean-Chinese document. Instead, the joint statement contained a pledge by all parties to resolve the issue through "friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned", reflecting Beijing's preference to deal with the issue on a bilateral basis.

The leaders gathered for the summit in Vientiane on Sept 7 include (from left) Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi; Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha; Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang; Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith; Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte; Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah; Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen; Indonesian President Joko Widodo; and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Some progress was made. The two sides agreed to set up hotline communications and adhere to a code guiding unplanned encounters at sea, to reduce the chances of clashes breaking out. But the real breakthrough still missing 14 years after it was mooted is a binding code of conduct governing actions in the sea.

China has promised to fast-track negotiations with Asean to complete the framework for such a deal by the middle of next year.

Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute analyst Tang Siew Mun thinks the deadline may be a tactical decision "to give China the widest strategic manoeuvrability vis-a-vis the new US administration and the Philippines' Asean chairmanship, and keep Washington and Manila in check on the South China Sea".

United States President Barack Obama, who "rebalanced" American foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific and oversaw the resurrection of American military presence in the Philippines, steps down in January. Despite the optimism he expressed in Vientiane about future US-Asean ties, it remains to be seen if his successor will have the same appetite for his level of engagement in the Asia-Pacific, under domestic political pressure.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has accepted chairmanship of Asean under a rotating arrangement. Its new President, Mr Rodrigo Duterte, wants to chart a foreign policy less dependent on the Americans. He has not demanded that China recognise the tribunal ruling, and left the door open for bilateral talks.

Are the Chinese then buying time? Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, whose country also has competing claims with China in the East China Sea, alluded to this possibility during his address at Thursday's East Asia Summit. "I am seriously concerned with the continuing attempts to alter unilaterally the status quo in the East and the South China seas," he said.

For now, Asean can only eye China's mid-2017 commitment with guarded hope.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline Little room for Asean to move in maritime dispute. Subscribe