ASEAN’s South China Sea ulcer

July 27, 2016

COMMENT: Why the gloom and doom about ASEAN just because the regional organisation is unable to craft and issue a joint statement on the question of the South China Sea.

That is not unusual. Members can agree to disagree and yet ASEAN can remain a cohesive and purposeful organisation to serve the common interest of its members. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia is a key document that forms the glue that binds members and its partners reinforced by the ASEAN Charter. The ASEAN way operates on consensus, consultation, and dialogue.

ASEAN is, therefore, not structured like the European Union centered on a huge and overpowering bureaucracy in Brussels. One of the reasons for BREXIT is the United Kingdom’s desire to preserve its sovereignty and free itself from mountains of EU rules and regulations. The Jakarta based regional grouping, on the other hand,  is a collection of sovereign and independent nations, each acting in accordance with the dictates of their respective national interest, yet agreeing to come together to pursue their collective interest to preserve regional peace, security and stability, and promote trade and investment for socio-economic development. So far, ASEAN is a success story. Since 2015, it is working towards becoming an economic community.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he delivers a speech during his presiding over an inauguration ceremony for the official use of a friendship bridge between Cambodia and China at Takhmau, Kandal provincial town south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, file photo.

Cambodia’s Foreign Policy is one of equidistance and neutrality with ASEAN as one of its pillars. (pic above Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia)

South China dispute is a convenient diversion. To label it as ASEAN’s ulcer–academics are prone to using colorful descriptions and cliches–is to me a bit of an exaggeration. To suggest that Cambodia is a surrogate of China is way over the top. It is a sovereign and independent nation and an active member of ASEAN and the United Nations. As such, Cambodia has the right to pursue good relations with China, Russia and United States and other countries. Its foreign policy is one of equidistance and neutrality.

Using labels has never helped to solve problems among nations. One can easily get away by saying that in the case of its dispute with China over the South China Sea, the Philippines is a proxy of the  geo-stategic interest of United States and talking tough because Filipinos think they can rely on US military power to defend their interest. This is to deny that the Philippines may have its rights over the disputed area. What purpose is served if Cambodia, a non claimant state, is seen to be taking sides?  Rightly, Cambodia has been promoting peaceful settlement of disputes and urging China to sign a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea which is an ASEAN initiative. Lest we forget the South China Sea issue simply  put is a complex one, one that will engage our diplomats over a long time. –Din Merican

ASEAN’s South China Sea ulcer?

by Dr Mathew Davies

http://www.newmandala. org

The just concluded meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Vientiane, Lao PDR, looked like it was going to be a high profile failure.  The fear was that the meeting would repeat the 2012 experience of being unable to produce a final communiqué in the face of Cambodia’s insistence that nothing was said that would criticise China over the South China Sea.

Four years later ASEAN may have avoided such a public display of disunity but the released communiqué, together with a JointStatement between ASEAN and China on the SCS, suggest that nothing has been resolved.

The Joint Statement is an insipid document that does nothing to address the cause of the flaring tensions in the region. It is full of bland endorsements of the international legal principles that many have shown a flagrant disinterest in and calls for handling differences in a ‘constructive manner’. If the word constructive in this context is intended to cover the building of military landing strips, the placing of advanced weapons systems and aggressive military posturing, then even given ASEAN’s ability to obfuscate this is a linguistic feat to marvel at.

The Communiqué certainly contains more words on the South China Sea than does the joint statement, a whole eight paragraphs, but it is just as damning. Paragraph 174 notes that only ‘some ministers’ were concerned about ongoing issues (for which read, not the Cambodians). No mention was made of the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea which had so decisively rejected China’s claims in the region in favour of the Philippines.

Image result for cambodia and south china sea

Instead all states were called upon to work together to both implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and work towards building a Code of Conduct to better manage affairs. These are laudable in themselves but hardly helpful given the Declaration was agreed in 2002 and has conspicuously failed to curtail regional tensions and any Code of Conduct would seriously curtail China’s freedom of action in the region, which is completely unimaginable at this stage.

ASEAN’s continued failure to address the South China Sea in anything approaching an effective manner is not only a short term failure – it now represents a significant and ongoing risk to ASEAN’s health. This challenge will not take the form of a heart-attack, a sudden and existential shock to the system. Instead it is an ulcer, a constant pain in the guts that threatens, slowly but inexorably, to flood the system with bile. This challenge takes two forms.

First ASEAN from 1967 has always been about protecting the sovereignty of its members from the encroachment of great powers – as Alice Ba has memorably put it the ‘regional resilience’ of Southeast Asia. ASEAN was founded in the belief of regional self-determination – in the wake of colonialism and amidst the Cold War it was a call to ensure that Southeast Asian states remained in the driving seat of Southeast Asian affairs.

Today, with ASEAN member Cambodia serving as a surrogate for China against the interests of other ASEAN members, it no longer seems to be that the organisation serves the interests of the region.

Failure in the South China Sea to offer even the most tepid of support for member states claims against a rising China, especially the more moderate of those claims, strikes at the heart of what ASEAN was designed to achieve. If ASEAN cannot talk of member states sovereign claims against external great powers, what is the value of ASEAN to those members?

Second ASEAN’s own quest for centrality in Asia-Pacific security is revealed to be a fruitless quest when there is so much reason to question even ASEAN’s relevance to the most pressing of regional security issues. ASEAN has always sought to spread the norms of consensus decision making that it is supposed to follow internally across the Asia-Pacific as a way to exert some sort of pacifying effect on the great powers of the region. Yet if those same norms are now preventing ASEAN’s ability to engage in a meaningful way with China in what way can they be said to be positive and worthy of others following?

The South China Sea issue, then, is not an external threat to ASEAN, but an internal health risk – a sore that if not addressed will continue to leach its poison into the regional organisation and the faith that its members have in it.

The challenge is not a superficial one. It is not about whether ASEAN will unite in the defence of an American designed international order as was the wish of Obama at the Sunnylands Summit or whether it will continue to forge its own path.

The challenge is about whether ASEAN can continue to be valued by its members for the reasons it was created – whether it has the strength of purpose to defend its members from external interference, whether it can continue as a vehicle for regional self-determination rather than a generator of regional discord, and whether it can choose centrality over irrelevance.

As with any health risk, this challenge needs to be confronted sooner rather than later and with a coherent measured response, not a random assortment of lowest common denominator actions. I fear that the prognosis has just deteriorated.

Dr Mathew Davies is head of the Department of International Relations in the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.


20 thoughts on “ASEAN’s South China Sea ulcer

  1. I think ASEAN has handled the SCS disputes very wisely. Among the 4 claimant states, only the Philippines & Vietnam chose to be confrontational with China; Malaysia & Brunei prefer the diplomatic way. The political farce of the Hague Tribunal has forced China to react assertively to demonstrate its great power status. No rising power, certainly not the US in its day, could meekly accept such condemnation. To do so would engage domestic nationalists, but more importantly would signify impotence in the face of international pressure. Meek acceptance would also permit the establishment of a precedent whereby any neighboring state could litigate against China to assert its own interest. The good news is the Philippines has a new president who has shown signs of being a pragmatic leader willing to make mutually beneficial deal with China, and commit to working with China to resolve differences. How events will develop depend on Duterte’s disposition, China’s diplomatic sagacity, and America’s response.

  2. Wonder how many passports can one have, if one were to be so fortunate to born on the island of ApaItu? Sadly, parents of most of these nations would still prefer their children to be given an American passport 😌

  3. I have always been taken by the Soviet phrase “the correlation of forces” (COF). The term denoted the overall balance of power between the USA and USSR taking the political, economic, military, social and ideological factors all into account. In other words, it was a term that encapsulated the “balance of power” in a holistic manner. The term was never widely adopted in the West, but I find it a useful one.

    Blatantly put, the COF is clearly on China’s side in the South China Sea, so long as the USA does not explicitly throw its weight on the scales. Despite all the talk of the Philippines acting as America’s cat’s paw, the fact is that the US has not explicitly declared that the disputed Philippine-China claims in the South China Sea are covered by its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. This is different from the Senkaku Islands administered by Japan, which the US has declared as being covered by its treaty.

    Apart from the Philippines, the other ASEAN claimants – Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – are basically on their own. Indonesia has even been drawn in to the dispute recently, based purely on China’s sea claims. China does not claim any land controlled by Indonesia, but it claims part of Indonesia’s maritime EEZ. Anyway, none of the individual ASEAN claimants have the ability to resist China successfully. The COF is entirely in China’s favour when it comes to the bilateral contests.

    So if the SCS claims are kept purely bilateral, and the US does not get involved directly, China will get most of what it wants eventually. I can see Vietnam resisting, but it has limited sea and air power. Beijing of course understands this fully, which is precisely why it keeps on insisting that the disputes are purely bilateral in nature. Personally, I am doubtful that the US will get involved militarily so long as China is ready to continue to allow free passage of ships and planes through the SCS, and I think the latter is smart enough to understand this.

    Besides, Chinese assertiveness will only serve to push the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia closer to the US, and frankly a stronger defensible position can be built to contain China with these three firmly in the US camp. It is not easy to draw a line through the middle of the SCS to contain China, but it is definitely easier to do so with Luzon, Palawan, the Natunas and Singapore. Just look at a map of the region.

    This is a long post, and some may find it confusing as it’s not black or white. Basically, the COF tells me that China will probably gets most of what it claims in the SCS. But it won’t gain total primacy in the region, and the US (with allies) will be better positioned to contain Chinese power just outside the boundaries of the nine-dash line.

    While I understand the view that ASEAN as a body should keep out of the SCS dispute, keeping the disputes bilateral plays to China’s advantage. That should be understood as well. Whether we like it or not and for good or bad, Chinese assertiveness is splitting ASEAN politically, and I don’t see an end to that unless China collapses (like the USSR). I do think there is an ongoing structural economic slowdown in China, but I don’t expect a collapse.

    Finally, ASEAN is indeed not the European Economic Community (before the EU). The original 6 founding countries of the EEC were all NATO members (though France did later quit NATO), and the members who later joined like the UK were all in the western orbit. The point is that all EEC members operated outside of Soviet influence. So there were no great power geopolitical rivalries acting on the organisation.

    Thanks for your informed comments. What position do you think a non-claimant small state like Cambodia should take on the SCS issue other than what I had suggested in my comments with regard to its foreign policy founded on equidistance and neutrality. –Din Merican

  4. Asean countries need leadership from Asian nations.

    Most Asian countries were invaded and colonized by Western powers and Japan when China was weak in the 19th century.

    We need a strong China as a peace maker to lead Asean and Asia to stand up against the manipulators and trouble makers from Japan, US and Australia in South China Sea.

  5. EU has strong leadership from Germany and France and with US support is able to confront Russia. However, the former imperial power of Britain is weaken, wanted her own way now, may lead to its breakup as Scotland, etc wants independence too.

    Philippines wanted but is incapable of leading Asean even with the support support of its former colonial masters, US and Japan against China.

    China was a superpower of the world for thousand years before the rise European, Japan and US as superpower for only about 200 years.

    Unlike European, Japanese and American, Chinese never colonized other countries, let us China leads Asian’s rise.

  6. Asean should emulate Cambodia.

    “it’s China that has money, not America,” You want gun, American can give you:

    “On Thursday last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte publicly voiced his stance over the South China Sea issue – “War is not an option. So what is the other side? Peaceful talks.” And he has recently showed an increasingly pragmatic attitude toward his nation’s relations with Beijing as well as the South China Sea tension by saying “it’s China that has money, not America,” hinting that he is open to Ramos’ suggestion of putting the arbitration award aside in order to get benefits from China”

  7. The US military operating out of re-established bases in the Philippines will guarantee free passage through the SCS. But I am doubtful there is any political will in the US for a fight with China. I doubt that there is even any political will for economic sanctions against China. So one can forget about military conflict. As long as China continues to allow free passage, the US will I believe be ready to concede most of the nine-dash line. And as mentioned, I think Beijing is smart enough to understand this.

    The US in my view has never been against China’s rise. If it did, it would not have continued allowing US firms to invest in and trade with China. But it will not allow undisputed hegemony by China over the western Pacific. However, there is no defensible line to be drawn through the middle of the SCS. As I said, my view is not black or white. It’s not US win/lose and China lose/win. Great power rivalry is a long game, and besides its a highly complicated relationship. The US and China have many common interests and are major trading partners. The reefs in the SCS are not the be-all-and-end-all of their relationship.

    US forces operating out of Luzon, Palawan and Singapore, supported by Indonesia holding on firmly to the Natunas can form a clear geographic barrier against further Chinese expansion. And to the north, a reinvigorated Japan, along with US forces operating out of Okinawa will form another line. It’s a balance of power, and not a war of annihilation. The US and China are “rivals” and not necessarily “enemies”. Don’t confuse the two terms. The difference between those terms is the difference between war and peace.

  8. I haven’t thought deeply about what Cambodia or Laos should do. My first thought is that I can agree that there is no burning national interest for it to get involved. Secondly, even if it did get involved, does it really change anything?

    ASEAN is also not a military organisation. In fact, I’m not even sure if there are defense treaties between any two ASEAN states. The only one that comes to my mind is the Five Power Arrangement in which Malaysia and Singapore are involved, but frankly its just a piece of paper nowadays (plus SIngapore is not a claimant to the SCS).

    So if the claimant states are looking for joint action, ASEAN is not the best vehicle. Not only is it not a military organisation, the claimant states are also just a minority within it.

    Thanks. That is why I think ASEAN is not going to break up because of disagreement over a joint statement on SCS. ASEAN is about regional cooperation for economic development and security. –Din Merican

  9. Veritas’ COF analysis is so comprehensive!.
    I guess it has to be a growing experience for all nations.

    Things will be messier as Abe recently got the vote count to perform a constitutional change to start building its’ army. The naive me thought the conflicts between Japan and China is a recent event.

    I was made aware recently that the tension goes very far past into many many centuries. I guess me being a Chinese, part of a quarter of the world’s population would often forget how others think of us. We just don’t learn about other people’s rhetoric. I guess the same applies to Americans. Most of the Americans I know in college could hardly tell where Malaysia is, not to mention how Malaysians think about the world. But, of course, I am not sure how we Malaysians ought to think about the world also.

    Things could only get more complicated.

    I actually like the outcome. It accurately reflects our situation.
    Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia and other ASEAN nations got to figure out what it means to be growing up together also. Hopefully, in the meantime, Singapore could figure out who the next Philosopher King would be.

    // I don’t see an end to that unless China collapse
    China will have its’ cycle of unceasing break-ups and unification.
    I recently learnt that the root word Confucianism came from references of ‘clothings’ of the ceremonial religion leaders of the previous Zhou dynasty during the occupying force of the Shang dynasty from Hu Shih ( Confucius spell about the strength in the practice of the weak dignity discipline of the previous civilization.

    If history tells us anything, I suspect Xi administration would come and go fairly quickly. Hopefully, not violently. After all, Cultural revolution lasted only 10 years.

    In the meantime, let’s not get distracted. Chinese respect more advance societies, like Singapore. Let’s focus on making ourselves respectable.

    Jangan layu-lah, Melayu.

  10. I realize beyond the analysis of COF, it is also about the setting objective function correctly in this analysis in this lose-lose situation. For the sake of Cambodia, Malaysia and all ASEAN nations, objective should be “minimize the chance of a proxy war happening in our own backyard”.

    Emphasizing each other’s weak ‘dignity’ cultural force empathetically would be the easiest solution. Veritas has forgotten to factor in these cultural forces (called in different names in each of culture) in his analysis.

  11. I understand that the SCS claims are immediate to the various claimant states. To them and the people in the region, the Spratlys and Paracels etc. can seem very important. Sovereignty and patriotism are very emotional issues. But in my view, the situation can seem very different if you step back and look at the situation objectively from a high level geopolitical perspective, which I think would be how Washington would view it.

    Plainly put, the SCS islands are not of crucial geopolitical importance to a great power except China. Think of the history. Throughout the long years of Western colonial rivalry in South-east Asia, the SCS islands were mostly ignored. Do you think the British, Americans and French were strategic idiots? The British built their naval bases in Singapore and HK, controlling the north and south of the SCS. The Americans were in Luzon, controlling the eastern part of the SCS. The French meanwhile built their naval base in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, later taken over by Japan, then the US, and then the Soviets. As side note, the Japanese forces that invaded Malaya sailed from Cam Ranh Bay.

    These bases were at the four points of the compass covering the SCS. You don’t need the Spratlys and Paracels to control the SCS. Those islands are in fact useless as bases for major military operations because they are too small and don’t have large deep harbours. The USA certainly does not need them to ensure its position in the region. And if you think of the situation now, China only has control of one point of that compass – the north. Vietnam is not going to allow China to use Cam Ranh Bay. The US will likely re-establish its bases on Luzon. Singapore is friendly to China, but is closer strategically to the US, and the US already have naval facilities in Singapore.

    Now, HK is no longer a major military base, and that point of the compass has been replaced by Hainan Island where the main Chinese naval complex is located. The new Chinese carrier base at Hainan has reportedly the longest carrier berth in the world at 700m. Anyway, the point is China controls only one point of the compass. If it came to a fight, the other three points would be likely controlled by hostile powers. It is precisely because of this that those small islands and reefs in the SCS that were ignored by other great powers are of interest to China. Control of them would allow China more strategic access to the SCS. However, in a direct conflict between the US and China (I think this is unlikely as I have mentioned before, but let’s just think of the hypothetical), Chinese control of the SCS is not enough, because the US would still be able to block China’s oil imports that will need to be shipped through the Straits of Malacca. Without control of the straits, Chinese control of the Spratlys and Paracels will be of little consolation.

    Therefore from an American point of view, in my opinion, those SCS islands/reefs are not crucial strategically. Again, the US could if it wanted too exert force over the entire SCS from Luzon. And if Vietnam and Singapore were willing too, Chinese positions in the SCS could be attacked from three points of the compass, plus the Malacca straits closed to Chinese shipping. Which is why in my opinion, the key issue for the US in the SCS is to ensure that free passage by ship and air will continue even if China got most of its “nine-dash line” claim. And to help ensure that continues to be the case, the US will likely re-establish its old bases in Luzon. But the Americans will not bleed for Filipinos over the Mischief Reef or Scarborough Shoal. The US do not need those small islets to contain Chinese power if required.

  12. International Relations (IR) is one area where I lack expertise.
    So, these are the thoughts of a non-expert:

    Like any other superpower, China is acting in its own self-interest.
    No more Maoist-inspired international solidarity as in the TanZam
    (Tanzania-Zambia railroad) or Vietnam War days.
    China is explicit in its claims over the South China Sea (a stance I disagree with). It is building artificial islands etc to literally cement these claims.

    Meanwhile, other powerful nations control other regions (and countries)
    through other – and more hypocritical – means e.g. France by stationing
    French soldiers in former colonies in Francophone Africa, USA by training and arming the police and military of various Third World kleptocratic regimes (such as the Central American banana republics like Guatemala and Honduras), Russia by sponsoring armed groups in the eastern Ukraine and so on.

    Main issues – how to prevent armed clashes and bloodshed in the South China Sea, how to ensure free passage of ships in the disputed areas,
    how to avoid needless environmental destruction (I read that the building of artificial islands is destroying coral reefs in the region), is China going to exploit natural resources in the South China Sea regardless of consequences to the people of neighbouring countries (including fish stocks)?

  13. The Philippines is still a semi-colony of USA and Japan, and to a certain extent Aussie, because Philippines stills fellow the outdated policies like allows US military bases in Philippines, the manipulation by US to cheat Chinese to the European arbitration court, the money making court.

    The so called arbitration is illegal and costs Philippines poorer by US$30 million in arbitration fees pocketed by Japanese, American and European judges and lawyers to get a useless paper award.

    This is a good lesson to be learned by Philippines and others who still think American and European are the best.

  14. If I hear Veritas correctly, SCS islands are not crucial strategically for US. As per Dr Phua, and my own opinion, it is of ASEAN nation’s interest that there would be calm and peace in our communal pool. So, one way as per rightways, just let China has her 9 dashline, all is calm. But, question remains, would any ASEAN political leaders got to stay as where they are, if they were to do as per rightways? Everyone of them would loose power within their party/nations. If rightways has its’ way, although there would be calm in the Seas, there would be chaos within each of the nations.

    One COF analysis not mentioned is that if China doesn’t get her way, PremierXi would feel threatened, and he looses face facing so-called Chinese netizens, and some other unimaginable crazy things would start happening.

    IMHO, appeal to your neighbour’s weak loving empathy in your neighbour’s unique native lingo (i.e. cultural inheritance), so that you can sleep better tonight.

    When all we start learning how to talk in Confucian/Daoist/Mohism/Marxism to China, Catholicism/Islam to Philippines, and grand Islamic past to Brunei King, and got to appeal to each of their sense of empathy, we all got to sleep soundly.

    Americans would have nothing to say then.

  15. Just to clarify, what I am suggesting is do what Obama did in China and in every nation he visited in South East Asia. Obama talked directly to the people of the nation, and not merely to the head of state in his town halls. I have yet to come across a speech from any ASEAN leaders who spoke directly to the Chinese citizens 😦

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