Asian Editors Circle

Fighting the odds to show Asean unity in South China Sea dispute

Asean has survived its first serious test as a new community, one could even say with flying colours.

Against all odds and predictions, the regional group this week came up with a common response to the ongoing maritime and territorial disputes that four of its members have with China in the South China Sea.

The wording of a joint statement at the Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Vientiane on Monday may not carry much weight to change the situation on the ground or, more precisely, in the sea. Nevertheless, it is a position that all 10 member countries openly subscribe to, although they have different interests and approaches in dealing with China, including in addressing the South China Sea disputes.

They defied earlier scepticism that the annual Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting could come up with a common position.

Since Asean makes its rulings by consensus, it really takes just one member to botch any decision.

Sceptics took their cue from the disastrous 2012 meeting in Phnom Penh when they failed to issue a communique for the first time in Asean's history, also over how they should approach China.

Last month, during a meeting between Asean and China foreign ministers in the Chinese city of Kunming, an Asean statement referring to the South China Sea was released by Malaysia, only to be withdrawn within hours because of China's protest.

China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the Xisha Islands, also known as the Paracel Islands, in the South China Sea in May. Asean's common statement on the maritime row raises hopes the group can pull off an important display of unity at a time when most observers had given up hope. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Paragraph 174 of the communique adopted by all 10 members in Vientiane reads: "We remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."

Paragraph 177 states: "We emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea."

No one can accuse Asean of skirting the thorny issue when eight of the 191 points in the statement were dedicated to the situation in the South China Sea.

What the statement does not do is in directly naming China as the main culprit. Also missing is any reference to the July 12 ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague, which said that China's activities in the South China Sea violated the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Although China is party to Unclos, it has stayed away from the arbitration process filed by the Philippines. Beijing has declared the court's decision "null and void" and would not abide by it.

Make no mistake about Asean's common concerns, even though the wording was couched in such a way so as not to offend Beijing.

That is Asean diplomacy.

The dividing line in Asean has been how to deal with China over the South China Sea disputes.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei have overlapping claims in the area, with China claiming virtually the entire sea. In 2012, when the foreign ministers failed to produce a statement after their meeting in Phnom Penh, it took Indonesia's then Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to tour the Asean capitals and get all members to agree on a text. The communique was released one week after the ministers had gone home.

No such mistake this time. Intensive lobbying, including a retreat called by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, bore fruit as the ministers produced their statement on Monday. Host Laos and Cambodia had opposed any discussion on the South China Sea, while the Philippines had wanted stronger wording. A few hours after they came to a consensus, the Asean ministers met with their Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, among the many foreign ministers from Asean's major trading partners that joined the annual gathering this week.

Asean needs to show a semblance of unity more than ever now, and their common statement on the South China Sea raises some hopes that the group can still pull off an important stunt like this at a time when most observers had given up hope.

Asean launched an economic community on Dec 31, an event that has hardly made a dent in the lives of its 600-million population because their governments have been lukewarm at best in hailing its arrival. There were no fireworks accompanying the launch in Asean capitals.

Contrast this to the all-night party during the formal accession of several East European countries to the European Union.

When the community idea was first broached by Asean leaders in 2003, they discussed concerns that the rapid economic rise of China then, and to a lesser extent of India, could marginalise Asean members and reduce these countries, including early Asian economic tigers Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, to mere satellites of the new Asian giant economies.

When the Asean Economic Community was launched at the turn of this year, the urgency seems to have disappeared even though the concerns expressed by the leaders 13 years ago had somewhat materialised. By now, China has become the second-largest economy in the world and, for all Asean member countries, China is their biggest trading partner and also a major source of badly needed financial investments.

While none of the Asean claimant countries are backing off from their position in the South China Sea, they continue to pin their hopes on diplomacy. When the ruling came, there were some celebrations, with some in Manila even hailing it as a victory of David over Goliath. But their governments knew that China would ignore the ruling. It does not change anything on the ground.

Reality quickly sank in. A negotiated settlement with China is the only viable course. The alternative, a military solution, is just unthinkable. While one or two Asean countries have formally, if not protectively, looked to the United States and its allies in Asia, they are still giving Asean diplomatic efforts a chance.

That conciliatory mood prevailed in Vientiane this week as Asean foreign ministers hammered a common position in facing China in the South China Sea. They still have one more card to play with China: the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a document that China signed with Asean in 2002, by which all parties agreed to manage their conflicts peacefully without the use of power.

Asean has been trying to get China to turn this declaration into a more binding document under a formal Code of Conduct. The Vientiane communique reiterated the call Asean has been making to China almost every year: Let's speed up the negotiations.

With China now coming under a lot of international pressure for defying the decision by the international tribunal this month, the Code of Conduct with Asean may offer Beijing the face-saving exit from the current impasse.

Asean has extended its hands. The ball is in China's court.

  • This is the fifth article in a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'Fighting the odds to show Asean unity in South China Sea dispute'. Print Edition | Subscribe