July 17, 2012
ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh: Another Perspective
By Donald K Emmerson
Never in 45 years of regular meetings faithfully followed by bland communiques have the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to agree on a statement for public consumption summarizing their private deliberations. Not, that is, until now.
At the end of their just-concluded gathering in Phnom Penh, the silence was deafening. The proximate cause was their inability to reach a consensus on whether the statement should mention Scarborough Shoal, the site of a tense stand-off that began in April between China and the Philippines, whose governments both claim that land feature in the South China Sea. The Philippines wanted to include such a reference. Cambodia objected. Neither gave in. The “ASEAN way” of consensus failed.
The details of what went on so recently behind closed doors in Phnom Penh are still unclear. The repercussions are not yet known. But it is not too early to speculate that, for China, the outcome amounts to an immediate victory that could prove tenuous in the longer run.
Cambodia and China
The underlying cause of the breakdown deeply implicates Beijing and its effort to defend its claim to possess exclusive sovereign rights over nearly the entire South China Sea. That claim is embodied in the cryptic nine-dash line on Chinese maps that calls to mind a gigantic cow’s tongue lapping deeply into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
Whatever else the tongue may mean, it denies the overlapping rights of sovereignty asserted by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, which together with Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand make up the membership of ASEAN.
As the 2012 chair of ASEAN, Cambodia hosted the group’s Foreign Ministers in Phnom Penh, and would have read out their final communique had there been one. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has never, to my knowledge, endorsed China’s claim to the South China Sea. But no ASEAN leader is more sensitive than he is to China’s views and demands. By refusing to read a statement that mentions Scarborough Shoal, he acted in a manner consistent with China’s positions on the sovereignty conflict.
In Beijing’s view, ASEAN has no business trying to resolve the disputes over the South China Sea, which can only be settled bilaterally between China and each of the four Southeast Asian claimants, and only when the time has come for that to occur. In this context, by refusing to issue a communique, Cambodia appears to have done what China would have wanted it to do.
China is Cambodia’s largest foreign investor. Beijing has lavished money on high-profile aid projects in the country, including paying for the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh where the ASEAN ministers met. Almost immediately before the start of an ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in April 2012, President Hu Jintao arrived on a four-day visit, the first by a Chinese head of state to Cambodia in 12 years. It is hard to believe that Hu’s timing was coincidental.
Beijing had already thanked Cambodia for supporting China’s core interests,  which arguably include China’s controversial claim to most of the South China Sea. And even if China’s expression of gratitude exaggerated Cambodia’s loyalty, there is no question that Hun Sen has tried to use his country’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012 to keep the South China Sea off the group’s agenda.
An observer might conclude that China has effectively hired the Cambodian government to do its bidding, including preventing the ASEAN ministers from adopting a joint statement on the South China Sea. China can now point to that failure as proof of its own position: “We’re not against ASEAN, but if the group can’t even agree on words in a communique, how can they be expected to negotiate questions of sovereignty over the South China Sea? Leave the matter to us, in bilateral talks only with the states directly concerned, when the time is finally ripe.” Or words to that effect.
In fairness to Beijing and Phnom Penh, we do not yet know, if we ever will, the extent to which Manila may have shared responsibility for the infighting in – irony alert – the Peace Palace. Manila did press for a reference to Scarborough Shoal in the communique .
Why was it so vital to mention that incident at sea? Why couldn’t the shoal have been obliquely alluded to? Did Hun Sen simply lose his temper, as he has in the past, and scuttle the statement rather than compromise on its wording?
A more critical uncertainty is this: How badly has the rift in Phnom Penh damaged ASEAN’s ability to sponsor a binding code governing state behavior in the South China Sea?
In 2002, China and the ASEAN states signed a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Some of ASEAN’s leaders hoped to commemorate the document’s 10th anniversary this year by drafting, among themselves, a binding code of conduct. The plan was to finish the task in time for the ASEAN ministers to announce the draft at their meeting in Phnom Penh.
The good news is that the draft code exists, although its contents have not been announced. It is apparently not a polished text, but it lists the points that, in ASEAN’s collective judgment, a final text should make. There is even reason to believe that the draft includes provisions for the settlement of disputes. If that is true, it will please analysts who doubted that ASEAN would be willing or able to go beyond the usual pieties: be nice, be helpful, and don’t make things worse.
It is the impunity with which claimants have repeatedly violated the hopeful terms of the 2002 document that has rendered so urgent the need for a code that explicitly opens the door to enforcement. One can be cautiously encouraged in this context that in Phnom Penh, largely ignored by journalists focused on the ministers’ kerfuffle, ASEAN did give the draft code to China to review.
The bad news is that a communique noting what the ministers had accomplished would likely have mentioned their success in preparing a draft code and described it as an important step forward. Absent that recognition, the text could languish in limbo, without a clear status and vulnerable to being dismissed as a mere wish list. Intentionally or not, when Hun Sen cancelled the communique, he prevented ASEAN from publicly and prominently validating the draft as the group’s official basis for negotiation.
If China really does want to avoid being bound by a code, what happened in Phnom Penh evokes divide et impera with Chinese characteristics – divide ASEAN and rule the waves. In fairness to Beijing, however, one must note that China did not manufacture from scratch the division inside ASEAN.
Beijing was hardly responsible for ASEAN’s unwillingness or inability either to persuade four of its own members to compromise their claims, or to stop some of them from making destabilizing moves on and in the water. Had the four first resolved the contradictions among their own positions, ASEAN could have presented a unified front in its negotiations with China. 
Discussions between ASEAN and China on the draft code are scheduled for September. Because the draft is an ASEAN product, those talks will be multilateral in character. If China takes part, it will have to leave its bilateralist preference at the door. ASEAN’s plan is to join China in signing a final text at the next round of ASEAN-related summits this November.
If the talks for some reason do not to take place in Cambodia, the summits certainly will. In Phnom Penh in November, as mercurial as Hun Sen is, things could again go badly. Beijing, however, will think twice before it allows itself to be implicated in yet another public embarrassment of ASEAN, especially in the presence of the foreign heads of state who will have gathered for the East Asia Summit. More likely, between now and then, if China really wishes to impede the code, it will have worked hard in discussions with ASEAN either to postpone its completion or, failing that, to ensure that its contents are banal.
If this happens, ASEAN could face a Hobson’s choice in November: to admit failing to co-author a text with China, or to unveil and hail a toothless edition. In calculating what (not) to do and when (not) to do it, China will also be looking at the calendar, knowing that on January 1, 2013 Cambodia, which is not a claimant, will cede the role of ASEAN chair to Brunei, which is.
ASEAN’s draft is unlikely to stay hidden for long. If it does remain secret, no one but the governments directly involved will be able to identify China as the cause of any changes, including concessions made to satisfy Beijing. But if the draft is circulated in its current form, and China demands that changes be made, and they are made, these deviations from the original will eventually be public knowledge. ASEAN’s diplomats will risk being charged with having given in to the dragon.
The chance of this happening will depend on the extent to which Beijing has already been privy to the drafting of the would-be code inside ASEAN, and has used such access to influence the wording to its satisfaction. And if China did not play a role in that internal ASEAN process, a Southeast Asian with access to the draft who wishes to inhibit Beijing’s ability to amend it will have an incentive to leak it.
Compared with summits, lower-level conversations are less likely to attract attention and raise expectations. A sub-ministerial venue for ASEAN-plus-China discussions of the code already exists. In that less prominent context, China may find it easier to postpone any outcome it does not like.
If China were to stonewall the code, consigning it to permanent limbo, could ASEAN go ahead and sign it all by themselves? Not in an atmosphere of intramural recrimination such as now exists. But if the passage of time heals present wounds while at the same time eroding ASEAN’s patience, that could conceivably occur.
ASEAN’s 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia offers a precedent. The group’s member states initially drafted and adopted that document by themselves, before inviting China and other countries to sign. Nearly 20 governments outside Southeast Asia, including China, have chosen to do so. Beijing would, however, object to being given a fait accompli – a text, a pen, and a dotted line on which to sign – especially one meant to internationalize the South China Sea.
China could yet change its mind. Beijing could decide to embrace a multilateral effort under ASEAN’s aegis to draft a code of conduct governing state behavior in the South China Sea. China could even agree to a dispute settlement mechanism of some sort. If in 2013, in line with expectations, the Xi-Li duo – Xi Jinping as president, Li Keqiang as premier – is fully ensconced in Beijing, the regime could feel confident enough to turn its “frown diplomacy”  upside down, into a smile.
One ought not hold one’s breath waiting for such a conversion, however. As a matter of realpolitik, China’s leaders will still be tempted to remind ASEAN’s leaders of the stark asymmetry between them and their largest neighbor.
Compare ASEAN’s next chair, Brunei Darussalam, with the People’s Republic of China. Ostensibly, in the United Nations General Assembly, they are equals; each has one vote. Yet Brunei’s population is 0.0003 percent of China’s. No wonder China prefers to negotiate with Brunei in a room with only two chairs, rather than having to face all 10 Southeast Asian claimants in the same room at the same time.
Although the total population represented by those ten negotiators would still be (slightly) less than half the demographic bulk of China, they would outnumber the lone Chinese diplomat 10 to one. Variations on the logic of inequality underpin China’s repeatedly stated preference for separate bilateral negotiations, and only with each of the four Southeast Asian claimants.
But size bring its own discontents. Throwing its weight around in the South China Sea may well keep lesser states at bay, but it will confirm China’s image as a bully. If China wields its geo-economic and geopolitical power as a blunt instrument – “I’m big and you’re not” – it will trigger joint pushback among Southeast Asians while earning their disrespect.
Smart power in a networked world of high-speed linkages, flows, and innovations means knowing when recourse to physical preponderance is counter-productive. Size does matter, but how it is used matters more. By the evidence of Chinese diplomacy regarding the South China Sea, that lesson has not been fully learned.
Earlier this year, for example, China proposed that an unofficial (Track II) Eminent Persons and Experts Group (EPEG) be formed and tasked to discuss the draft code of conduct and make appropriate recommendations. China proposed further that the group comprise ten individuals, five from China and one from each of five ASEAN states.
In ASEAN circles, this allocation appeared blatantly to illustrate an imperial mindset based on size alone: “Because we’re big, we’re entitled to half the seats on the EPEG. Because you’re small, you’ll have to share the other half. And, by the way, five of your ten members won’t be sitting in the room at all.” Or thoughts to that effect.
It is possible that China floated the idea of an EPEG in order to postpone the code. With an EPEG in place, Beijing could delay decisions on a text on the grounds that the advisory body had not yet completed its report. With half of the EPEG’s members representing China, the report could be postponed for years.
Reportedly, in subsequent discussions, China has kept its five seats while agreeing to let ASEAN occupy 10. To reduce Beijing’s ability to use the advisory body to upstage and prolong the preparation of the code, Southeast Asians have insisted that the EPEG should be convened only after the negotiation of a text with China has already begun. Had a communiqu้ been issued in Phnom Penh, it might have mentioned the EPEG. Without it, we can only speculate about the fate of China’s proposal.
Beijing’s attempt to control half the EPEG shows a toughening of China’s line over time. In 2005 an ASEAN-China Eminent Persons Group was established to review ASEAN-China relations and suggest improvements. That body met the one-country-one-seat rule: 10 Southeast Asians sat at the table with one Chinese.
If the EPEG does actually meet with China occupying a third of its 15 seats, its deliberations will be more amenable to Beijing’s control, especially if splits among the ASEAN states further weaken their majority. As of July 2012 China appeared unwilling to accept a principle of equality between states that it had been willing to endorse seven years before.
Few Southeast Asians pay attention to events on Track II. Some of those who do will be relieved that China has at least backed down from its effort to disenfranchise half of ASEAN. But if the 10 + 5 formula is retained, the moral-to-realpolitik shift from 10 + 1 since 2005 will, however modestly, degrade Beijing’s legitimacy in foreign-policy circles in Southeast Asia.
Already widespread in the literature on state behavior is the idea that a “resource curse” bedevils the political economies of countries that are rich in oil and gas but poor in governance. Could there be an “amplitude curse” that inclines the world’s most populous country to throw its unmatched weight around? 
How much of China’s “soft power deficit” in the eyes of Southeast Asians is a function of its authoritarian regime? Will democratization, if it occurs, make China more collegial? Or will it magnify the curse of size by making it harder for China’s presently insulated elite to limit the impact of popular and populist nationalism on foreign policy?
Whatever the answers to these questions, two things are clear: Beijing feels entitled to the South China Sea, and that sense of entitlement limits its ability to project soft power.
Consider Beijing’s ongoing characterization of its claim to the South China Sea as “indisputable.” Is there no one in the foreign ministry who recognizes how laughable this description is? Whatever one thinks of the nine-dash line on China’s map, it is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, being disputed. Four ASEAN states are disputing it, not to mention its disapproval by others.
Manila has suggested separating those parts of the South China Sea that are “disputed” from those that are not. Perhaps Beijing thinks that in describing as “indisputable” its claim to most of the entire sea, it is simply protecting its position. But in the realm of soft power, where words matter, China’s insistence on indisputability undermines its case.
The deadlock in Phnom Penh may delay a code of conduct for the South China Sea. But it may also speed the unwillingness of at least some ASEAN states to kowtow to their giant neighbor, while strengthening their incentive to cooperate prudently with outsiders, including the United States, for the sake of their own national and regional independence. In the meantime, it behooves the four Southeast Asian claimants to make sure that they too, being very much part of the problem, are part of its solution.
1. Hu Jintao’s visit to strengthen Sino-Cambodian ties: Chinese envoy, Xinhua, ; and Robert Sutter and Chin-hao Huang, China-Southeast Asia Relations: Hu Visits Cambodia as South China Sea Simmers, Comparative Connections, May 2012, p 2.
2. Prak Chan Thul and Stuart Grudgings, SE Asia meeting in disarray over sea dispute with China, Reuters, July 13, 2012.
3. The sixth claimant is Taiwan; its position, at least on the surface, replicates China’s. 4. See Emmerson, China’s ‘frown diplomacy’ in Southeast Asia, Asia Times Online, October 5, 2010.
5. Such reasoning could be applied to the behavior of other large countries as well, of course, including the United States.
Donald K Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University. His latest publication is “Southeast Asia: Minding the Gap between Democracy and Governance,” Journal of Democracy (April 2012).
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