ASEAN, with its timid stance on the South China Sea, risks irrelevance and Chinese dominance.
By Donald K. Emmerson*
It was meant to be a sunny summit. Welcoming ASEAN’s leaders at the Sunnylands estate, President Obama said he had invited them to southern California, not cold and snowy Washington, to reciprocate the warm welcomes he had received in their own countries on his seven presidential trips to Southeast Asia. Appreciative laughter ensued.
Naturally Obama ignored the futility implied by the name of the city where Sunnylands sits: Rancho Mirage. But as a metaphor for ASEAN’s hopes of moderating China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and the summit’s efficacy in that regard, the name of the city is more apt than that of the estate. Rancho Mirage lies in the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert. In the driver’s seat on a desert road in the shimmering heat, ASEAN might be fooled into seeing a geopolitical oasis – a meaningful agreement with China on the South China Sea – finally near and achievable with continuing patience and faith in the “ASEAN Way” of regional diplomacy by consensus and declaration.
The Sunnylands Declaration, released on 16 February at the end of the two-day summit, lays out 17 principles to guide US-ASEAN cooperation going forward. The fifth of these reaffirms “respect and support for ASEAN Centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms in the evolving regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific.”
On the day the declaration was announced, news broke that China had just deployed surface-to-air missile batteries on a land feature in the South China Sea controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan – Woody Island in the Paracels. So much for the efficacy of the declaration’s eighth principle of “shared commitment” to “non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities.”
After “activities,” the Sunnyland drafters could not even agree to add “in the South China Sea,” let alone mention China, its encompassing “nine-dash line,” or the dredging, up-building, and runway-laying that Beijing has being doing at a breakneck, unilateral, mind-your-own-business pace on the contested features that it controls. Missile launchers on Woody? Score another point for the “PRC Way” of creating lethal facts while the “ASEAN Way” drafts wishful norms.
To its credit, the summit did convey “shared commitment” to “freedom of navigation and overflight” in and above the South China Sea, and twice endorsed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But those phrases will not soften China’s refusal to allow international rules to restrain its maritime ambitions.
The notion that announcing principles will change behavior is the main mirage that gained false credibility in Rancho Mirage, at least among Southeast Asians who are disposed to value lowest-common-denominator diplomacy. They hope that China will be influenced by ASEAN-propagated norms to moderate its maritime ambition and behavior.
More than a few of Obama’s guests at Sunnylands retain faith in a single should-be, will-be solution: a Code of Conduct, or COC, in the South China Sea. The declaration does not refer to this illusion. But allegiance to such a code was evident in conversations among participants at the summit and in interviews afterwards.
For well over a decade in Southeast Asia and beyond, diplomats have been discussing the need for a – still non-existent – COC. In 2002 China and the ASEAN governments did sign a Document on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or DOC But its hortatory spirit and provisions were violated almost from the outset by nearly all six claimants – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China’s placement of missile launchers on Woody Island, cheekily on the eve of the Sunnylands summit, was but the latest nail in the DOC’s coffin.
China and the ASEAN states undertook in the DOC “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability” in the South China Sea. China’s leaders could have observed this principle. Instead they chose to bully Manila and Hanoi, respectively, by seizing Scarborough Shoal and stationing a huge oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. They chose to harass and expel Southeast Asians from a vast nine-sided fishing zone unilaterally drawn and appropriated for China’s own priority use. They chose to complicate and escalate disputes, damage peace, and cause instability by unilaterally enlarging, outfitting, and militarizing land features under Beijing’s contested control in a manner that dwarfs in scale and lethality the up-building efforts of other claimants.
It is not in China’s expansionist interest to implement a mere declaration, the DOC. Still less attractive in Beijing’s eyes is a code with teeth – a COC whose enforcing mechanism might actually punish violations. To encourage delay, Beijing insists that the DOC must be implemented first, before a COC can be drawn up and signed. To avoid commitment and to maximize the divide et impera asymmetry of separate bilateral talks between China and each Southeast Asian claimant, Beijing calls the discussions with ASEAN “consultations,” not “negotiations.”
In 2004 China did agree with the ASEAN states to establish a Joint Working Group on the Implementation of the DOC. In October 2015 in Chengdu, China, the group met for the 15th time. Afterwards, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman assured listeners that the participants had reaffirmed “their commitment to fully and effectively implementing the DOC” and their readiness “to “work toward the early conclusion of a COC on the basis of consensus” [emphasis added].
In Southeast Asia, views of China’s behavior range from acquiescence (Cambodia, Laos) to antipathy (the Philippines, Vietnam). Manipulating this dissensus helps China ensure that the mirage of a COC remains in sight, motivating ASEAN, but continues to recede, protecting China.
ASEAN’s faith in its own centrality and the validation of that credence in Rancho Mirage reinforce passivity and complacence in Southeast Asia, including the idea that because ASEAN is indispensable, it need not be united, proactive, or original.
Southeast Asian officials and analysts who excuse ASEAN’s inertia argue that the grouping isn’t a government; China’s not that much of a threat; and geography has, after all, put China permanently next door. Coaxing the four Southeast Asian claimants to settle their own overlapping claims, some say, is just too hard to do. Brainstorming alleviations and ameliorations, let alone solutions, for the South China Sea? That’s too daunting as well. Isn’t the problem really a Sino-American struggle for power? Why get involved? Why not prolong the happy combination of American ships for deterrence and Chinese markets for profit? China’s leaders at least say that they want an eventual COC. Why not keep believing in that and them and avoid rocking the boat?
By its actions, China is signaling its intent to dominate some, most, or all of the South China Sea – the heartwater of Southeast Asia. If and when China manages to coopt and cow the ASEAN states into deference and resignation, Beijing will likely “disinvite” the US Navy from accessing what China controls. If this happens, the “Centrality” of ASEAN that was lauded in Rancho Mirage will have merited that city’s name, and China’s centrality will be all too real.
Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University. His publications include, as editor, Hard Choices: Security, Democracy, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia.