Beijing's Asean diplomatic coup

In recently concluded meetings, China portrays rising tensions over South China Sea as interference by non-claimant states

Rising tensions in the South China Sea, as well as the Korean peninsula, dominated discussions at the latest ministerial meetings of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean). The just-concluded meetings in the Philippine capital of Manila brought together 27 foreign ministers from across the Asia-Pacific.

On both issues, China not only avoided criticism of its behaviour, but projected leadership with diplomatic finesse. In contrast, the United States struggled to exercise its traditional role as the anchor of stability and prosperity in the region.

Under the chairmanship of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Asean has consistently soft-pedalled on areas of disagreement with China, particularly in the South China Sea. As a result, Asean is fast fading into irrelevance in terms of shaping the regional security architecture.

As years go by, Asean is increasingly playing second fiddle to China, rather than acting as a driver of regional integration.

During the Asean summit in April, President Duterte blocked efforts by some regional states, particularly Vietnam, to criticise China's massive reclamation activities as well as deployment of military assets to disputed land features in adjacent waters. The outcome was the softest Asean statement on the South China Sea since Cambodia's chairmanship in 2012, when the regional body couldn't even agree on discussing the disputes.

During this month's ministerial meetings, Vietnam upped the ante, vehemently lobbying for swift negotiation of a "legally binding" and "substantive" code of conduct (COC) in disputed areas, as well as mentioning regional concerns over militarisation and reclamation activities in the area.

Sansha city on an island in the disputed Paracels chain, which China considers part of Hainan province. Beijing has asked South-east Asia to address the South China Sea disputes as an exclusively China-Asean issue. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

These efforts were consistently opposed by Cambodia, delaying the release of the communique. After intensive discussions, the Philippines, as the chairman, pushed for a compromise, with the communique mentioning that Asean "took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers" on ongoing reclamation activities in the area "which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region".

The implication is that there was no consensus on even abstractly referring to these concerns.


To be fair, the communique underlines the "importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint" in the disputed areas. But it also called upon "all other states" - not only claimants - to do so.

In this way, Asean implicitly discouraged or criticised external powers from ramping up their naval footprint in the area.

In effect, China has managed to portray rising tensions in the South China Sea not as a byproduct of its maritime assertiveness but, instead, interference by non-claimant states. This is nothing short of a diplomatic coup by Beijing.

In recent years, the US Navy has conducted so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea to challenge excessive territorial and maritime claims by China. Other external powers such as Japan, Australia, India, France and Britain have signalled both diplomatic and operational support.

To Beijing's delight, the communique did not mention the Philippines' landmark arbitration award against China at The Hague, even if Japan, Australia and the US called upon both countries to abide by the ruling in a separate joint statement.

There was neither a mention of a "legally binding" COC nor the term "serious concern" (as was the case in Asean statements in previous years) over the South China Sea disputes.

In recent weeks, Beijing has called upon South-east Asian nations to address the South China Sea disputes as an exclusively China-Asean issue.

Encouraged by Asean's apparent acquiescence, China made it clear that the negotiation of a COC will not push through unless "there is no major outside interference", since the "situation is generally stable".

In effect, China has managed to portray rising tensions in the South China Sea not as a byproduct of its maritime assertiveness but, instead, interference by non-claimant states. This is nothing short of a diplomatic coup by Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was among the most proactive participants, meeting all key counterparts, including North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong. The Chinese diplomat chastised Pyongyang, urging it not to "provoke the international society's goodwill by conducting missile launching or nuclear tests", shortly after Beijing and Moscow voted in favour of a new round of sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.

China's unusually tough language came in response to growing regional anxiety over North Korea's behaviour, namely, its latest testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).


In their communique, Asean leaders expressed "grave concern" over the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. After weeks of criticising China for supposedly aiding the North Korean regime, US President Donald Trump welcomed China's decision to ramp up pressure on its age-old ally.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration struggled to shape Asean's agenda, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson painstakingly navigating disagreements over free trade, climate change and human rights concerns with South-east Asian allies and strategic partners.

Mr Tillerson provided no specific policy regarding the South China Sea disputes, although he managed to rally regional support on the North Korean conundrum. And the constant stream of political scandals in the White House has also inspired little confidence in American leadership in Asia.

Overall, the latest Asean meetings in Manila underscored China's emergence as the new regional leader and growing doubts over American wherewithal and commitment to the region.

  • The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines and the author of Asia's New Battlefield: US, China, And The Struggle For The Western Pacific
  • S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Beijing's Asean diplomatic coup'. Print Edition | Subscribe