Fragmented ASEAN balks at taking a position on China’s creeping expansionism in the South China Sea.
By Amitav Acharya*
The Association of Southeast Asia Nations has prided itself on its “ASEAN Way” – an informal and non-legalistic way of doing business, especially its culture of consultations and consensus that have resolved disputes peacefully. That way of doing may be fading among signs the group’s unity is seriously eroding. Against the backdrop of the rise of an assertive China, signs of disunity spell trouble for the region.
There are several reasons for this disunity. First, ASEAN today is a much bigger entity. Membership expanded in the 1990s to include Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, with East Timor likely to be the 11th member. ASEAN’s functions and issues have also expanded. Economic cooperation has expanded from the idea of a free trade agreement to a more comprehensive economic community, which technically enters into force this year. ASEAN cooperation extends to a range of transnational issues from intelligence-sharing, counterterrorism, and maritime security to environmental degradation, air pollution, pandemics, energy security, food security, migration and people-smuggling, drug-trafficking, human rights and disaster management.
With an expanded membership, agenda and area of concern, it’s only natural that ASEAN will face more internal disagreements. It’s thus not surprising that one of the most serious breakdowns of consensus have involved its new members. Cambodia, as ASEAN’s chair, disastrously refused to issue a joint ASEAN communique in 2012 to please China – its new backer and aid donor – rejecting the position of fellow members, Philippines and Vietnam, on the South China Sea dispute.
Compounding challenges is the uncertain leadership of Indonesia. There are signs that the Jokowi government has downgraded Indonesia’s leadership role in ASEAN especially as the de facto consensus-builder of ASEAN on both intra- and extra-ASEAN conflicts, including the South China Sea. Jokowi’s “less multilateralism, more national interest” foreign policy approach, in sharp contrast to his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s active leadership of ASEAN, could change. If not, the danger is that if the democratic, economically dynamic and stable Indonesia does not take ASEAN seriously neither will the world at large.
Without doubt, ASEAN’s main security challenge is the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. While not a new problem, the disagreement has telescoped due to recent Chinese activities. The most recent example: China’s reclamation activities in the Fiery Reef claimed by Vietnam and Mischief Reef and surrounding areas also claimed by the Philippines. This reflects a shift in China’s approach. While the Chinese military has pressed for land reclamation for some time, the leadership of Hu Jintao had resisted such moves. That restraint ended under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who is more prone to seek the PLA’s counsel in foreign policy issues related to national security and who has advanced China’s assertiveness on economic, diplomatic and military fronts. China is developing the islands further for both area denial and sea-control purposes and as a staging post for blue-water deployments into the Indian Ocean.
These developments challenge ASEAN’s role and “centrality” in the Asian security architecture. The economic ties of individual ASEAN members lead them to adopt varying positions. Until now, ASEAN’s advantage was that there was no alternative convening power in the region. But mere positional “centrality” is meaningless without an active and concerted ASEAN leadership to tackle problems, especially the South China Sea dispute.
Episodes such as the failure to issue a joint ASEAN communique in 2012 have led to the perception that ASEAN unity is fraying and China is a major factor. According to this view, China is out to divide and conquer ASEAN even as it pays lip-service to ASEAN centrality. This perception results from China’s seeming willingness to use disagreements within ASEAN, especially the consensus-breaking stance of Cambodia, insisting that ASEAN stay out of the South China Sea conflict, as an excuse to resist an early conclusion of the South China Sea Code of Conduct. China also takes the unwillingness of some ASEAN members to use strong language to criticize China as a sign of disunity. China cites earlier differences within ASEAN regarding the scope of the code of conduct over the inclusion of the Paracels, as desired by Hanoi. Moreover, China views the code as crisis-prevention tool rather than a dispute-settlement mechanism.
China needs to dispel perceptions that it is playing a divide-and-rule approach to ASEAN. It should also stop objecting to bringing the South China Sea question onto the agenda of the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, on the pretext that not all ASEAN members are party to the dispute and outside countries such as the United States have no business even discussing the issue. This has the effect of undermining the very idea of ASEAN centrality or relevance that Beijing purports to uphold. It’s hard to see what the rationale for having these meetings might be without discussion of one of the most serious challenges to regional security and well-being.
As for ASEAN, it must not remove itself from South China Sea issue. If anything, it should give even more focused attention to the disputes. One must not forget the lessons of the conflict triggered by the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia from December 1978 to September 1989. Neither Vietnam nor Cambodia were members of ASEAN, and only Thailand was regarded as the “frontline state.” Then, ASEAN decided to involve itself in a conflict between two non-members because it considered the Vietnamese action a breach of regional norms and a threat to regional stability. Today, four of ASEAN members are parties to the conflict, out of which two are “frontline states”: Philippines and, ironically enough, Vietnam. The South China Sea conflict poses an even more serious threat to regional stability, and it is a legitimate concern of ASEAN as a group.
Finally, a word about the view put forward by some that ASEAN is irrelevant and should stay out of the South China conflict. The alternatives are few and bleak. US military action? It may have a deterrent value against the worst-case scenario of a full-blown Chinese invasion of the islands, but is unlikely to prevent the more likely scenario of China’s creeping expansion. Any US-China understanding is useful for crisis management, but ASEAN would have to worry whether in the long-term it would lead to US concessions to China – such as refraining from militarily and diplomatically challenging China’s position in the islands and surrounding areas.A decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which is considering a motion filed by the Philippines challenging the legality of China’s nine-dash line, may end up in Manila’s favor. This would help ASEAN, even if China rejects that verdict. But to make the most of such an opportunity, ASEAN would need to show collective support for such a verdict, and it might help if other claimants, such as Vietnam, also initiate similar legal action. China rejects a more direct role by the East Asia Summit, led by ASEAN anyway, because of US membership. The international community should render more support and encouragement to ASEAN to persist with its diplomacy in the conflict. And Indonesia needs to get back in this game.
*Amitav Acharya is the UNESCO Chair in Transitional Challenges and Governance, School of International Service, American University, in Washington DC. He is also past president of the International Studies Association, 2014-15, and author of The End of American World Order (Polity, 2014, Oxford India 2015, Shanghai People’s Press, 2016).