Soul-searching needed lest maritime disputes tear Asean apart

Without a doubt, the South China Sea disputes are beginning to heavily influence the overall texture of broadly constructive relations between China and its South-east Asian neighbours.

Asean's much-publicised failure to officially issue a joint statement during the recent Asean-China special meeting in Kunming, China, is a poignant reminder of the fragile nature of regional integration. It also highlights the excruciatingly difficult task heaped upon Singapore, the current coordinator for Asean-China affairs.

The much-anticipated conclusion of the Philippines' arbitration case against China in the coming days will surely place even greater pressure on Asean to mediate the increasingly dangerous showdown in the South China Sea.

Intent on preserving Asean centrality, South-east Asian states, led by Malaysia, sought a special meeting with China to communicate shared concerns over the troubling trajectory of regional maritime spats.

The aim of the meeting was to explore possible mechanisms to de-escalate territorial tensions, effectively manage the disputes and, if possible, contemplate a long-term resolution of inherently intractable sovereignty disputes.

The implementation of the decade-and-a-half-old Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the resumption of long-stalled negotiations over a legally binding Code of Conduct were at the top of the agenda.

Activists protesting at the Chinese Consular Office in Manila on June 10 against China's activities in areas in the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines. The anticipated conclusion of the Philippines' arbitration case against China is expected to put more pressure on Asean. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

There were also more urgent, short-term measures such as the years-long call for a total freeze of reclamation activities and other provocative and unilateral actions by claimant countries. Obviously, in the light of booming trade and investment ties between Asean and China, the necessity to ensure geopolitical differences don't trump economic cooperation have gained greater salience.

No single nation or minority of nations, or external power should be allowed to undermine regional unity, notwithstanding the cherished tradition of consensus-based decision-making.

Against the backdrop of Asean leaders' intimate retreat with American President Barack Obama in Sunnyland, California, in February, which concluded with a robust joint statement on the South China Sea disputes, South-east Asian leaders also felt the necessity to signal their willingness to maintain balanced relations with both the United States and China.

Unfortunately, however, the Kunming meeting ended up exposing fault lines within the regional body, underscoring the pertinence of strategic soul-searching among Asean members lest the disputes tear asunder Asean itself.

After releasing a relatively strongly worded statement on the maritime spats, which broadly mirrored earlier statements by Asean, a Malaysian foreign ministry official abruptly declared: "We have to retract the media statement by the Asean foreign ministers… as there are urgent amendments to be made."

Yet, there was little explanation as to the circumstances of the retraction or its release without the apparent approval of concerned parties, nor was any subsequent amended statement issued. It was a strange diplomatic outcome for what was dubbed a fruitful and candid meeting aimed at preserving warm relations between the two sides.

Meanwhile, the Asean secretariat told the media that it "has not received any statement on this issue to be circulated".

The episode didn't only provoke confusion but also rekindled lingering doubts as to Asean's ability to effectively mediate the South China Sea disputes.

Reports suggest that the statement was retracted due to vociferous pressure by China on certain member countries, particularly those heavily dependent on Chinese largesse. Some observers suspect that certain overzealous elements within Malaysia prematurely leaked the draft statement but the picture was apparently more nuanced.

Asean members reportedly decided to deny China any public relations dividend by, quite undiplomatically, snubbing the planned joint press conference after the special meeting, where Beijing was hoping to release a 10-point consensus statement which downplayed the South China Sea disputes and called on external powers such as the US to steer clear.

The statement which was released by Malaysia and then retracted "expressed (Asean's) serious concerns" over the South China Sea disputes, which "have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability" in the region.

It also emphasised the "importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation", and called upon claimant states to maintain "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes", refrain from "the threat or use of force", and behave in accordance with "universally recognised principles of international law, including the Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and the UN Charter".

Interestingly, in an explicit rebuff to China, it mentioned that South-east Asian nations "cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between Asean and China".

A careful look at the joint Asean-US statement in Sunnyland and the subsequent one during the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, reveals that the retracted statement was broadly consistent with the regional body's recently expressed position. So its retraction/non-issuance is indeed disappointing.

Reflecting the depth of intra-regional divisions, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen lashed out at allegations that his country, supposedly bowing to China, was behind the controversial decision to retract the statement. Worryingly, he openly criticised the Philippines' decision to resort to compulsory arbitration against China, dismissing it as a politically motivated measure that is "not about laws" and instead a "political conspiracy between some countries and the court".

This clearly doesn't augur well for regional unity once the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague issues a judgment that is expected to be unfavourable to China. Asean members will have to hang together and hammer out a robust consensus on the issue, or risk allowing the maritime disputes to tear asunder the regional body.

No single nation or minority of nations, or external power should be allowed to undermine regional unity, notwithstanding the cherished tradition of consensus-based decision-making.

No less than Singapore, long praised for its diplomatic acumen, will have to facilitate internal cohesion and pull off an increasingly challenging task of preserving Asean centrality vis-a-vis the South China Sea disputes, which threaten decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity in Asia.

•The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines.

•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 June 30, 2016, with the headline 'Soul-searching needed lest maritime disputes tear Asean apart'. Print Edition | Subscribe