Asean, China and the South China Sea

The recent Asean meetings in Vientiane set commentators thinking about the regional grouping's influence, ties with China and tensions in the South China Sea. Here are excerpts from commentaries in Asia News Network papers.

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

Work to be done


The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Following the regional summits in which Vientiane hosted the world's major leaders until last week, Asean might become more colourful under the new chairmanship of the Philippines, led by tough-talking President Rodrigo Duterte.

The slogging work continues, nevertheless, for Asean members to live up to their own latest pledges.

Put simply, the most basic requirement for achieving any of the renewed commitments - whether on regional security, cooperation against drugs and human trafficking, combating terrorism, boosting economic ties or curbing the latest Zika epidemic - is unity, which is sorely lacking among the 10 member nations ahead of Asean's 50th anniversary next year.

As President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo told the plenary of the 28th Asean Summit, "we cannot turn a blind eye to the instability that is emerging in our region. We cannot let powerful countries dictate to us and determine the fate of regional security and stability".

Indonesia is among the countries currently feeling the heat of China, which, according to the study released by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, was involved in 30 out of the 45 clashes and stand-offs reported in the South China Sea since 2010. However, like many of its neighbours, Indonesia also seeks to garner the most benefits from Asia's economic giant.

Perhaps reflecting such ambiguity towards China, the "Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea", issued by the foreign ministers of Asean and China in 2002, remains merely a declaration 14 years on.

In Vientiane, therefore, Mr Joko called for its effective implementation. The partnership between Asean and China must be able to contribute to peace, stability and security in the South China Sea, he said.

Unity remains Asean's utmost challenge, which indeed has frustrated members themselves. Now as the association of 600 million people struggles to forge an Asean community in the economic, security and other sectors, Indonesia under President Joko will have to lead the way to improved regional unity.

Is Asean becoming irrelevant?

Alito L Malinao

Philippine Daily Inquirer

The outcome of the recent three-day summit of the 10-member Asean in Vientiane, Laos, is another proof that the regional grouping is inutile in standing up to China in the maritime row affecting four of its members.

As expected, the joint communique issued after the summit, which was also attended by Asean's dialogue partners, including China and the United States, failed to mention the July 12 arbitral ruling that invalidated China's territorial claim over almost the entire South China Sea.

The Philippines, along with Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam, has claimed parts of the islands, shoals, reefs and atolls that straddle the South China Sea.

China has adamantly refused to respect the ruling of the arbitral court in the case filed by the Philippines despite it being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) that binds member countries to respect each other's exclusive economic zones.

As in previous Asean summits, the Vientiane communique is couched in such gobbledygook as "reaffirming the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force…"

Through the years, during their frequent meetings capped by a yearly summit, Asean officials have often engaged in palaver rather than dwelt on substantive issues. The meetings merely afforded photo ops for the grouping's leaders and resulted in the issuance of long, vapid and repetitive communiques.

According to Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, the lack of a direct mention of the Philippines' victory in the arbitration case against China in the draft of the Vientiane communique, which the Asean foreign ministers earlier approved and which was adopted in toto by the Asean Summit, does not necessarily mean a diplomatic victory for China.

"This is a victory for Asean for upholding the principles of international law," Mr Yasay said in a televised press briefing at the Department of Foreign Affairs after the communique was released. He said Asean had affirmed that it would resolve maritime disputes through international law, particularly under the Unclos.

What Mr Yasay said is mere diplomatese because clearly, China notched another victory in Asean's failure to cite the arbitral decision that China considers void ab initio.

But the Vientiane communique is a slight improvement from the one issued after the Phnom Penh summit in 2012, when the Cambodian government refused to even mention the South China Sea in the final document.

Shortly after the 2012 summit, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen candidly admitted that his country had made a "strategic choice" in China's favour by completely ignoring the South China Sea issue. He said his country would block any common position by Asean on the maritime row, which was what China had explicitly demanded from its surrogates.

China has insisted that the problem in the South China Sea does not involve all Asean countries; thus, it will only negotiate on the issue with the relevant individual parties, not with Asean as a whole.

With China's intransigence regarding the ruling of the arbitral court, it is doubtful whether China will ever agree to adopt and implement a code of conduct to lessen the tension in the area and finally resolve the maritime issue to the satisfaction of all claimant countries.

Ferment in the sea


The Statesman, India

The cordiality of the Asean summit in Vientiane hasn't quite airbrushed the continuing discord between China and the South-east Asian economies, notably Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, over the South China Sea.

Despite the ruling given by the arbitral tribunal, the tension over the mastery of the choppy waters might fester for some time yet, going by two developments.

China has sent what they call a "coded warning" to the United States to stay out of the dispute. This is unwarranted as America is not directly involved.

The other development in the season of regional bonhomie is the signal from the Philippines, articulating its "grave concern" over the alarmist maritime reality - Chinese boats are preparing to build structures on a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

The accusation makes a travesty of last week's diplomatic peace in Vientiane. To convince the regional leaders, the authorities in Manila have come up with what they call empirical evidence, most importantly photographs and a map showing Chinese vessels near Scarborough Shoal, which China had seized after a stand-off in 2012. 

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang's assurance to the regional heads of government, that Beijing is anxious to work with other countries to "dispel interference" in the contested maritime zone, has cut no ice; the countries at the centre of the dispute remain ever so unconvinced.

Though Beijing's maritime strategy has effectively been binned, there has been no indication over the past two months to suggest that President Xi Jinping's China is willing to play on the back foot. Far from it. The court has declared some of China's artificial islands illegal and invalidated its claims to almost the entire waterway. Logically, this is a critical initiative towards resolving the dispute. Yet China's intransigence, that has been reflected in course of the Vientiaine summit, runs counter to the certitudes of international law. 

Though the United States is not directly involved in the dispute, China's "coded warning" against possible intervention is an attempt to up the ante, in the context of the arbitral ruling and in the midst of the Asean summit. The risk of being branded as an outlaw is dangerously real if China refuses to abide by the court verdict. This will doubtless undermine its claim to regional leadership as a responsible power.

Overall, the Asean summit has skirted the thorniest issue before the high table.

•The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner ANN, a grouping of 21 newspapers. For more, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2016, with the headline 'Asean, China and the South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe