The confused statements coming out from the recent Asean-China foreign ministers' meeting highlights an Asean in disarray. But big powers should also realise that a strong Asean is good for regional stability, and for themselves too.
One thing is clear from the confusion and controversy arising from the recent special meeting between Asean and Chinese foreign ministers in Kunming: South-east Asia's premier organisation is structurally split over its divergent territorial interests.
While the facts are still being debated in Beijing and South-east Asian capitals, Asean foreign ministers did produce a media statement from their meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The meeting, held at a lakeside resort in Kunming in China's south-western Yunnan province, was organised partly to review and build on 25 years of Asean-China dialogue relations.
The statement included Asean's concerns on the South China Sea in no uncertain terms. In view of China's disagreement, a decision was made that Asean, which was to have been represented by Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan as co-chair of the meeting with Mr Wang, would not attend any joint press briefing as it would be rude to disagree with the Chinese minister in public. Singapore is the current country coordinator for Asean-China relations.
Instead, the statement was released by individual Asean members, led by Malaysia. Controversy ensued at this juncture both because of China's manoeuvre to scupper Asean's South China Sea position and because Asean members themselves did not have their act together on how to convey their mutually agreed written position.
The upshot is that Asean is again seen as divided, reminiscent of Cambodia's rotational chairmanship in 2012 when the 10-member grouping failed to come up with a joint statement for the first time after its summit of foreign ministers. When it comes to the South China Sea, China is doing the dividing in Asean.
Underlying differences exist in individual Asean member countries' approaches to the South China Sea issue. Larger maritime Asean states, particularly the Philippines, are more confrontational towards China's wide-ranging claims in the South China Sea.
The smaller mainland Asean members, namely Cambodia and Laos, are correspondingly beholden to Beijing's preferences. As regional maritime insecurity and contestation intensify, China will be compelled to call in its chips with pliant Asean states, thereby driving further wedges into Asean's conditional unity that has underpinned its centrality in regionalisation over the past half-century.
Unless the regional states back off from this dangerous guessing game, tensions will continue to mount and the likelihood of conflict will grow to the detriment of concerned parties.
To the Chinese, there is no other viable alternative because their hands are tied. As is often the case with any tit-for-tat spiral, the responsibility and culpability shift around.
The Chinese insist the Philippines started it all by petitioning the United Nations' Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) several years ago to adjudicate over China's South China Sea territorial claims in blatant disregard of Beijing's preference to deal with maritime matters on a bilateral basis in line with the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea (DoC).
In fact, China is drumming up its own international support ahead of the PCA's imminent decision, including a side agreement with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos that the international ruling will not impinge on Asean-China relations.
A ratified party to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), China sees no wrong in its sea claims based on where it stands in the geopolitical mix and its historical rights based on a "nine-dash-line" map. Its view is that outside meddlers, such as the United States which has not even ratified Unclos, merely make matters worse by siding with China's opponents.
The Philippines takes the opposite view, arguing that tensions were initiated by China's aggressive claims in the South China Sea and construction of artificial islands out of reefs and rocks. Beijing's expansive "nine-dash-line" map that covers sea areas close to the Philippines is the source of tensions. Manila, therefore, has to seek recourse wherever it can. First and foremost, the Philippines has sought Asean's united stance against China's belligerent posturing. When Asean comes up short and proves disunited, especially its inability to draft a binding Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, Manila then has to opt for other channels, including the UN, and ultimately turn to the US as a treaty ally.
More recently, the Philippines has also cooperated more closely with other middle powers in the area, particularly Australia and Japan. Above all, Manila will not accept a bilateral ultimatum from Beijing.
In other words, the Philippines says it will not be bullied by China, and China maintains it will not be pushed around by what it sees as a US-backed international order operating by rules which Washington itself has not fully endorsed.
In turn, the Manila-Beijing contest over the South China Sea has emerged as the most daunting and existential threat to all that Asean has achieved as the central linchpin of regionalism in Asia.
ASEAN CENTRALITY AT RISK
As Asean gears up to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, Asean centrality - the idea that the grouping of 10 countries should remain at the centre of regional cooperation - has a long and illustrious past. It has spawned a clutch of crucial regional vehicles that have kept the region stable and prosperous, featuring the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1989, Asean Free Trade Area in 1992, Asean Regional Forum in 1994, Asean Plus Three in 1998, East Asia Summit in 2005, and, later, the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus).
Asean's achievement culminated with the Asean Community, launched with fanfare in 2008 and now, in effect, comprising three pillars known as the Asean Political-Security Community (APSC), Asean Economic Community (AEC) and Asean Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
Many have mocked these Asean-related acronyms and abbreviations as endless, empty talk shops along with hundreds of accompanying meetings. But they have enabled South-east Asia's economic growth and development and kept the region devoid of destructive war and conflict, as was the case in the distant past. Asean's constellation of regional vehicles also has provided an anchor for the wider peace in East Asia.
What China is doing to Asean in the South China Sea, and what the Philippines is doing to China at the UN and with the US and other major powers, is counterproductive and corrosive to how much Asean has achieved for South-east Asia's peace, stability and prosperity.
How things worked in Asean's past will no longer work in its future. An Asean-China accommodation is imperative.
Asean has to make unmistakeable references to alarming changes in the South China Sea status quo while convincing the Philippines to back off enough for China to be interested in negotiating a rules-based arrangement, namely the CoC. The Philippines should not capitalise on the PCA ruling (most likely in its favour), as much as Beijing should not ignore it. Let the ruling come to pass while the protagonists all back off in equal measure.
All major powers in the area should realise that it behooves them to have a reliable and strong Asean as a regional platform for peace and stability. A divided Asean is not just bad for South-east Asia, it will ultimately prove damaging to the major powers.
The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
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