By K. Yhome*
Meeting for the first time since the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea, the foreign ministers of the 10-member ASEAN adopted a joint communiqué on July 25. Despite countries like the Philippines and Vietnam being members of the grouping, the communique had no mention of the verdict. This has once again raised the question of the utility of consensus diplomacy often referred to as the “ASEAN way” — one of the grouping’s guiding principles since its formation.
Ever since The Hague-based, UN-backed tribunal’s July 12 verdict invalidating China’s claims in the South China Sea, much of the focus has been on the reactions of China and other major powers, including the United States, India and Japan. It is only now that ASEAN’s reaction or the lack of it on the verdict is getting some attention in the context of the 49th ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting (AMM) that was held in the Laotian capital of Vientiane on July 24 and 25.
The AMM meeting was an opportunity for the regional bloc to use the verdict to further boost its standing as a forum that upholds and respects international law. But the joint communiqué, described as a “compromise” document, was more to save the bloc’s “unity” — a feature that it prides itself — and also with the hope that the “watered-down” statement would lower tensions in the region.
Though these factors are important, the joint statement has yet again exposed ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) that it is today a deeply divided regional body and is unable to take strong position on critical issues affecting long-term regional peace and stability. More importantly, the failure of ASEAN to mention the ruling in the joint statement will affect the implementation of the verdict. China has already rejected the ruling.
Instead of using the verdict to challenge China, using the “ASEAN way”, China’s closest ally Cambodia used its veto to block the grouping from mentioning the recent tribunal verdict in the joint statement. It merely states that ASEAN remains “seriously concerned” over recent developments in the South China Sea “which have eroded trust and confidence” and there was no direct mention of China. The statement is nothing new as ASEAN had issued similar statements before.
Two ASEAN members (the Philippines and Vietnam) — the most vocal on maritime disputes in the South China Sea in recent years — wanted the joint statement to refer to the July 12 ruling and the need to respect international law. However, Phnom Penh’s objection meant that the regional bloc had to be contended with avoiding any mention of the verdict. Cambodia’s move is seen as a diplomatic victory of China as it has again succeeded in preventing ASEAN from taking a united position of a critical regional issue.
Filling the vacuum left by ASEAN, the foreign ministers of the US, Japan and Australia met in Vientiane on July 25, on the sidelines of meetings, including the East Asian Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), organised by the ASEAN, and issued a joint statement urging “China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal’s Award of July 12 in the Philippines-China arbitration, which is final and legally binding on both parties.” The statement also 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 Chinese Foreign Minister attended these meetings and issued a joint statement with ASEAN foreign ministers, which also had no mention of the ruling.
ASEAN member-states have long been divided over the South China Sea disputes — with four of its members (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) are claimants. Just a month ago, ASEAN foreign ministers struggled to agree on the wording on the issue. After a special meeting between ASEAN foreign ministers with their Chinese counterpart on June 14 in China’s Kunming, the ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to release a joint statement expressing “serious concerns” over developments in South China Sea and specifically mentioned China by name.
ASEAN foreign ministers consented that the joint statement would be issued separately to the media. Malaysia went ahead and did what was agreed upon by releasing the joint statement. But it was forced to retract the statement as Cambodia and Laos backed away from their earlier support of the joint statement under Chinese pressure. Earlier in 2012, when Cambodia was chair of the ASEAN, the regional bloc had failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in its history over disagreement on the South China Sea. Clearly, Chinese pressure on some of the ASEAN member-states has been growing over the years.
What is at stake is ASEAN’s credibility. The regional body is increasingly showing its inability to assert real diplomatic clout on regional security issues. This is doing little to counter its critics who often describe the regional grouping as a “talking shop”. In fact, as ASEAN foreign ministers struggled to find a consensus at the recent AMM in Laos, Hanoi issued a statement warning that the South China Sea had become “a test case for unity and the central role of ASEAN.” Clearly, ASEAN has favoured unity at the cost of its credibility.
One of the key objectives of ASEAN since its inception has been to promote peace and stability in the region. ASEAN had its time of success on regional issues in the 1980s when it brought an end to the Cambodian civil war or its ability to turn the region into an economic powerhouse. Furthermore, the regional bloc has successfully created several mechanisms with ASEAN in the driver’s seat. However, in recent years, ASEAN is losing the dynamism that has defined the forum in the past.
The South China Sea disputes have been increasingly dividing the regional bloc and this will continue to weaken ASEAN’s standing regionally and globally with adverse implications on the idea of “ASEAN’s centrality” on regional economic and security matters. As the ASEAN’s credibility comes under scrutiny, it may be a good time for the regional body to reflect on some of its cardinal principles, particularly its consensus approach. How well ASEAN re-imagines itself as a regional body will determine its role and standing in future.
Ironic as it may seem, the Japan-US-Australia foreign ministers’ joint statement during the ASEAN meetings in Laos stated that it “welcomed the central role of ASEAN in the development of regional architecture and its contribution to the region’s stability and prosperity” (emphasis added). One wonders if this statement was meant to tease the bloc’s weakness or to cheer up a deeply divided house.
About the author:
*K. Yhome is a Research Fellow with ORF’s Neigbhourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include India’s regional diplomacy, regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast Asia, the Bay of Bengal region and China’s southwest provinces. Of late his research has focused on developments in Myanmar and the evolving geopolitics in the Bay of Bengal. Before joining ORF he worked as an Editorial Assistant for Indian Foreign Affairs Journal.
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