South China Sea: Has ASEAN Lost Its Credibility? – Analysis


By Dhara Shah

The 21st ASEAN Summit (2012) at Cambodia emerged as a key convention in bringing about successful trade alliances and agreements. It was touted to be the summit that would help pour oil over troubled waters in the South China Sea (SCS); the meeting that would bring about ‘One Community, One Destiny’. What it instead transpired were soaring disagreements and sinking hopes.

Where did the summit lag behind? Has the ASEAN has lost credibility with regard to the SCS issue? Will it remain by its motto of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”?

Yes, because…


The ASEAN is a multilateral forum that aims at promoting cooperation among its members. And yet, the SCS dispute has been a chink in its armour of securing consensus. To illustrate, take the different stands of its members on the issue. China’s Wen Jiabao said, “”We do not want to give over emphasis to the territorial disputes and differences, and we don’t think it’s a good idea to spread a sense of tension in this region.” Translated, it meant that China did not want to ‘internationalise’ the issue, and that no supranational body could take decisions on its ‘sovereign’ affairs. Cambodia’s statement, largely in line with China’s position, was that maritime disputes need to be resolved bilaterally. This invited a backlash from Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who lodged a formal protest against Cambodia arguing that no such accord had been reached and that Philippine had “the inherent right to defend its national interests when deemed necessary.” Media coverage on the Summit has not detailed Vietnam’s position on the issue adding further ambiguity to the cooperation discourse. The varied stands indicate that ASEAN members ultimately prize their sovereign interests more than cooperative ones. Individual interests therefore, saw more articulation as opposed to member cooperation at the Phnom Penh Summit.

Second, the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea which outlined general provisions for behaviour of disputing parties and negotiation process did not see any discussion by the forum’s members. The Declaration till date remains a mere political document without any legal binding force freeing nations of any obligations. In addition, the disputing parties have penned bilateral agreements amongst themselves (like the October 2011 agreement between China and Vietnam) indicating that there are other routes countries rely on besides the ASEAN route.

Third, the absence of the customary Joint Communiqué by nations’ Foreign Ministers in July 2012 at Phnom Penh indicated the floundering of talks and the absence of cooperation between members. It thus appears ironic that a 10 member forum that aims at ensuring regional security and promoting peace, stability and mutual trust in the region, failed to navigate through the complexities of the problem.

No, because…

The SCS represents a deeply latticed and layered picture that simply cannot be painted with a simplistic brush. Refuting the above arguments it is possible to point out:

One, the alleged ‘failure’ of one summit alone does not mean that the organisation as a whole can be disregarded or labelled a failure. Realistically speaking, theorists like Charles Glaser have argued that while cooperation in an anarchic environment is difficult to achieve, the task is not impossible. Drawing on his arguments, the ASEAN has played a specialized role in international politics by providing nations a multilateral platform to discuss and negotiate the issue in the first place. The ASEAN therefore has to be given due credit for enabling state interaction on an issue hitherto not discussed.

Two, the SCS issue dates back to as early as the 1940s, covering territorial disputes between countries for over six decades. The fact that the SCS Conduct Declaration came about 2002 stands testimony to the ASEAN’s success of initiating a cooperative dialogue between formerly disputing nations after 60 plus years. This also goes to show the complexity of the issue. Further, the bilateral agreements signed between countries have only echoed the provisions of the said Declaration.

Three, agreed that the absence of a Joint Communiqué indicates friction between members, but would it not be unfair to label the organisation as not credible because of this alone? International politics often represents a chequered ground with cooperation and animosity gaining the upper hand at different times. With regard to the SCS, it should not be forgotten that the ASEAN, through economic and trade agreements, diplomatic arrangements like the recent statement by Obama urging cooperation have prevented the issue from escalating further.

To conclude, while vested interests by different countries have deepened the SCS dispute, the ASEAN has still managed to reign in a degree of order and cooperation between nations. Friction between nations is an endemic feature of the international system, but to debunk the ASEAN’s credibility due to it would probably be taking the issue too far.


Dhara Shah
Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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