The 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM-49) that concluded in Vientiane, Laos’s capital, on 24 July 2016 with the attendance of ten members of ASEAN and the bloc’s General Secretary Le Luong Minh failed to take unified stance after hours of negotiations on the South China Sea territorial dispute because of divisions between the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. Senior officials from these three countries were unable to narrow differences over the wording over a paragraph on the South China Sea and therefore consensus was eluded. This was the first major meeting of the stakeholders after the UN-appointed arbitration court in The Hague roundly rejected China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea resources on 12 July.
After hectic negotiations, the members issued a watered-down rebuke, which did not mention China by name but only said the organisation will “remain seriously concerned over recent and on-going developments” in the South China Sea. Not only the statement did not mention China by name, it did not even mention the tribunal’s ruling which rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea as violation of international law. But the latest proclamation gives the message that ASEAN does not want to inflame China’s feelings in the dispute.
The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi commented the tribunal’s award as amounting to “prescribing a dose of the wrong medicine” … and it seems that certain countries outside the region have got worked up, keeping the fever high”. He went on saying, “if the prescription is wrong it will not help cure any disease. That’s why we urge other countries in the region to lower the temperature”. China is not a member of the organisation but has close economic ties with many members. It is a part of an ASEAN 10 forum that included China and other diplomatic partners.
Who are the claimants and why? Some of the world’s busiest sea lanes traverse the South China Sea. The area is also a rich fishing ground and believed to be containing petroleum reserves under the sea bed. Both Taiwan and China together claim nearly the entire sea. Vietnam and the Philippines have large claims. Brunei and Malaysia have smaller stakes in water and land features that lie closer to their shores.
A number of disputed islands, including the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, are located in the South China Sea. Beijing makes territorial claims to the Spratly Islands, known as the Nansha Islands in China. This body of water is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves. The Chinese claims run counter to those made by the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
By cajoling the ASEAN grouping not to issue a final statement without mentioning the South China Sea, China seems to have scored a diplomatic victory, notwithstanding the fact that Philippines has scored at The Hague with a favourable verdict.
Being the host, the Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in his opening speech underlined the importance of the AMM-49 and its related meetings, which includes discussions on how to implement the ASEAN Vision 2025 and strengthen cooperation with its outside partners. Sisoulith stressed the regional and international situations that offer challenges and opportunities and how the ASEAN as a group work together to cope with the challenge. It was observed that the world is encountering new kinds of challenges – traditional and non-traditional – such as territorial disputes, terrorism and extremism, natural disasters, climate change, illegal migration etc.
ASEAN as a grouping has seen cracks in recent times that have affected its cohesiveness. The ability of the organisation to build consensus on certain critical issues has emerged as a worrying factor in the organisation’s effectiveness. ASEAN as a grouping had built a strong reputation over the years as a successful regional organisation and is seen as a role model for other initiatives elsewhere in the world. That reputation has now come under assault because of certain individual member’s stance on South China Sea.
The member nations had in the agenda such as ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint 2025, ASEAN’s central role, reform of ASEAN apparatus and working methods, and ASEAN Charter review in the related meeting scheduled for September. The issue of Timor-Leste’s membership and countries who wants to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation or to become ASEAN’s official partners also figured in the discussion.
But why did the ASEAN leaders fail to reach consensus over South China Sea dispute? The issue was deadlocked because Cambodia did not want China to be criticised. The diplomatic stalemate was because of Cambodia’s consideration of its own national interests and Cambodia did not want to put huge Chinese economic involvement in the country in jeopardy. The loyalty to the big country ‘C’ by a single ASEAN member country now puts pressure on ASEAN’s cherished unity and gives China an upper hand. After the ruling by the Hague court, China has been using every diplomatic means at its disposal to stave off wider international criticism over its moves in the South China Sea. Its diplomatic offensive as well as use of money power have worked in China’s favour and it has successfully brought disunity and broken the cohesiveness of the ASEAN grouping. As a result of Cambodia siding with China, ASEAN’s unity, cohesion, relevance and reputation have been dented.
The impact of the elephant in the room was all clear when at the end of the first round of talks the ministers issued a bland statement which said that the ministers had a “candid and constructive exchange of views on regional and international issues … as well as developments in the Middle East, Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea”. Traditionally, the foreign ministers, whenever they meet, issue a joint communiqué but this time the statement did not include any reference to the South China Sea as was expected. That remained the sticking point. The ASEAN’s cardinal principle has been to make all statements by consensus, which means any member of the grouping can veto a proposal and this time it was Cambodia by not agreeing to mention the South China Sea.
Cambodia has emerged as China’s closest ally in ASEAN. Even in 2012, Cambodia blocked a reference to the dispute when then ministers failed to issue a statement for the first time in the bloc’s history. At Vientiane, China publicly thanked Cambodia for supporting its stance on maritime disputes, and said Cambodia’s position shall safeguard unity of ASEAN and cooperation with China. Laos, another ally of China, was the host this time and therefore careful not to take sides but endorsed Cambodia’s veto. For these two Indo-China states, their relations with China are more important than their membership with the ASEAN. These two states would not hesitate to damage the centrality of the ASEAN grouping and therefore their own relations if their policy suits and does not offend China.
The Hague arbitration court delivered an indicting judgement against China and said that China does not have sovereignty claims and illegally occupying Philippines’ exclusive economic zones. China rejected the ruling as bogus and called for bilateral negotiations with the Philippines with the intention to cajole and overpower a smaller country to get compliance on its own terms. China has also accused the US of interference. It has warned Japan to keep away from any involvement on the issue. It has urged the ASEAN nations to be vigilant of US interests and appealed to forge closer ties with it, which it says, “a market no country can afford to lose”.
President Barack Obama’s “re-balancing” of US interests in East Asia is being challenged by China. The US claims that it maintains neutrality in questions of sovereignty in disputes over the South China Sea but supports freedom of navigation and has sailed naval vessels through the important seaway to underscore its policy. The US feels uneasy when China puts anti-aircraft batteries and radar systems on disputed islands in the sea that goes counter to its freedom of navigation principle.
Because of its strategic interests in the region, the US believes maintaining peace and stability in the region is in the interests of all and that all energies need to be directed towards that end. When the US Secretary of State John Kerry landed up at Laos, the landlocked country emerged as the next battleground for behind the scenes diplomatic manoeuvres over maritime quarrels. When China reacted to the tribunal’s ruling, the US had to step in to deescalate tensions. Washington continues to advocate freedom of navigation and supports unimpeded lawful commerce and urges Beijing to exercise restraint and respect the rights of others. Indeed, the South China Sea has been one of the top political and security issues in the region. The issue is being extensively discussed whenever there are multilateral meetings. Even while the members of the ASEAN are struggling for a long time to hammer out a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea, Beijing continues to expand its maritime footprint there.
Seeing the disunity in the ASEAN grouping that gave an upper edge to China, the leaders of Japan, Australia and the US had a series of meetings at Vientiane organised by the ASEAN and in a strong show of support urged China not to construct military outposts and reclaim land in the disputed South China Sea. As it transpired, ironically the joint statement by the three allies filled the vacuum created by Southeast Asia’s main grouping. The statement issued by Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers Fumio Kishida and Julie Bishop “expressed serious concerns over maritime disputes in the South China Sea” and “voiced strong opposition to any coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions”. The allies of ASEAN rushed with their support when the organisation remained divided succumbing to China’s divide-and-rule diplomacy by winning support from Cambodia and to some extent Laos resulting in a joint statement that did not mention China by name or the arbitration ruling.
China has not only rejected the arbitration award but has accused countries outside the region (read the US, Japan and Australia) of meddling in Southeast Asia and destabilising the region. It called the ruling as politically motivated, illegal and irrelevant. The international community sees the ruling as legally binding and a matter of law. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi urged Tokyo not to intervene, saying Japan was not a claimant in the disputes and should avoid interfering in the maritime spats. An angry Wang to Kishida: “I advise the Japanese side to be careful about what it does and not to repeat a similar mistake.”
China might have succeeded in scoring a diplomatic victory at Vientiane but China would continue to remain under immense pressure from the international community to change its stance. A series of international summit meetings are scheduled soon, including the G-20 meeting in China in September and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting to be held in Peru in November. Besides having the support of the US and Australia, Japan is also seeking the cooperation of the European countries to prevail upon China to comply with international law and stop building military bases in the South China Sea.
As it transpires, unless China backs down and changes course, no effort by the ASEAN claimant countries either independently or collectively would be enough to resolve the South China Sea dispute that is acceptable to all. It seems difficult that the competing narratives of the opposing parties can find a common viewpoint. The South China Sea is issue is likely to be more volatile at a time when the ASEAN’s centrality has come under assault and China’s belligerence continues to increase. It seems unlikely that despite obtaining a favourable ruling from the arbitration tribunal, Philippines would be able to stop Chinese actions and violation of its sovereign rights, including fishing rights at the Scarborough Shoal.
At the same time, China seems to be concerned that its international image has been dented to some extent because of the ruling. Its next move could be to regain some of its prestige that it lost by opting for a softer attitude towards the smaller neighbours. For China, it could be a good start if it can make the Philippines agree to a bilateral talk on the South China Sea. But then China ought to agree to respect global norms to make the talk meaningful, or else the deadlock could become worse.