August 20, 2016
ASEAN Solidarity back on track–Great News
by Kavi Chongkittavorn
Following the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) last month, ASEAN’s overall positions on the South China Sea have been strengthened.
Although the grouping’s dialogue partners – the US, Japan and Australia – tried hard to push ASEAN to mention the decision in its joint Vientiane communique, the group’s Foreign Ministers disregarded the suggestion.
Ironically, granted the current status, the outcome unexpectedly generates a win-win situation for concerned parties, especially the Philippines and China. With Manila’s return to the ASEAN fold, the group’s bargaining power has increased.
Furthermore, it has renewed the process of mending ASEAN-China relations, and the 25-year anniversary of ties will be commemorated in Vientiane next month.
To assess ASEAN’s next move – as well as its latest strength emerging from the 49th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting last month – it is necessary to make a comprehensive examination of all the papers issued at Vientiane on the current regional situation.
There were four documents – the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement on the Occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), the annual Joint Communique, the Joint Statement of the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN Member States on the Maintenance of Peace, Security and Stability in the Region, and finally, the ASEAN-China statement on the Declaration of the Code of Conduct and the early conclusion to the code of conduct.
As it turned out, all these statements implicitly reinforced the ASEAN positions and commitment to solve the maritime conflict with a full respect for legal and diplomatic process.
Following Thailand’s proposal to reiterate the importance of TAC on the eve of the 40th anniversary of this historic treaty, the Asean foreign ministers agreed without hesitation to a statement to pay tribute to TAC’s promotion of peace and stability in the region for the past four decades.
In addition, in the statement, ASEAN called on the TAC signatories – including key major powers – to continue to “fully respect and promote the effective implementation of the TAC, especially the purpose and principles contained therein.”
It is interesting to note that for the first time, ASEAN’s Foreign Ministers agreed to explore “a legally binding instrument” building upon the TAC for the wider region. ASEAN is more confident than ever that the TAC is an excellent instrument to engage external powers and secure peace and stability, so its application should be widely promoted.
The TAC joint statement jump-started all ASEAN members to work on the content of the 49th ASEAN joint communique, which was released on schedule despite unfavorable predictions. As in previous years, the section on the South China Sea continued to serve as an indicator of overall ASEAN solidarity.
The 388-word document – with its eight-paragraph section in the 32-page communique – signaled a united ASEAN position on the dispute, which it said must be resolved through peaceful means, based on “friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law including the UN Law of the Sea of 1982.”
ASEAN reaffirmed its long-standing policy to fully implement the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct and the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct (DOC) to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea region. It also agreed to non-militarization and to “undertake self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability” in the region.
The statement expanded the concept of self-restraint to include “refraining from action of inhabiting the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features.” This has always been the Philippine position.
At the Vientiane meeting, Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay displayed leadership in consistently urging ASEAN for “restraint and sobriety” followed the PCA award. At one point, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (above) responded, commenting that ASEAN should not shy away from mentioning a major decision of international rules of law which would reflect on the group’s own self-respect.
After the award, Myanmar released a statement touching on the decision, the first stand-alone diplomatic statement on the South China Sea, with a well-crafted response bearing Mrs. Suu Kyi’s advocacy at the ASEAN meeting.
Kudos for this rare display of unity must go to the Lao chair, Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (above), who steered the group to reach a consensus, despite different views among ASEAN members. But with Manila’s magnanimity, Phnom Penh’s assertiveness, as a non-conflicting party, did not have as much impact as before. To firm up the ASEAN position, the chair also backed Indonesia’s proposal for the ASEAN Foreign Ministers to issue an additional statement on the maintenance of peace, security and stability in the region – in reference to the South China Sea.
Finally, there was a joint statement from ASEAN and China that reaffirmed their commitment to the full implementation of DOC as well as freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea. The statement did not mention the July 12 decision.
At a glance, all these affirmations about principles and international rules of law relating to the South China Sea dispute sound hollow and meaningless given the past bitter experiences. But in reality, that is not the case.
ASEAN Foreign Ministers have to work hard to come up with their declarations one after another. They are not given much time, as outsiders might have thought, granted the fast-changing strategic environment.
After the Vientiane meeting, ASEAN is confident there could be substantial progress on the ongoing process to complete the code of conduct in the South China Sea (CoC). Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicated that Beijing is now ready to conclude the CoC sometime next year.
On this, some new tangible progress has been made over agreement to observe the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the area. ASEAN and China earlier discussed the code, which was put forward by Singapore as the coordinating country for ASEAN-China relations at a previous working group meeting in April.
This new measure will further reduce tensions and the risk of accidents and misunderstandings in these busy waters. Laos and Myanmar are preparing to accede to the CUES.
The grouping also wants to establish hotlines between the Foreign Ministries of China and ASEAN member states to promote trust and confidence, which reached an all-time low ahead of the ASEAN annual meeting.
They are also exploring the possibility of undertaking cooperative activities in the South China Sea, such as navigation safety, search and rescue, marine scientific research, environmental protection and combating transnational crimes at sea.
All in all, the four ASEAN documents renewed the ASEAN centrality and laid a new foundation for a much-needed conducive atmosphere to improve ASEAN and China relations. Early next month, their countries’ leaders are due to meet in Vientiane to celebrate 25 years of bilateral relations.
In a series of exchanges of letters between the leaders of China and ASEAN on this special occasion, Premier Li Keqiang pledged to bring their relations to “a higher plane and make greater contribution to peace, stability and prosperity of this region and beyond.” China regards ASEAN as “the priority in neighborhood diplomacy and will continue to support the ASEAN integration process and ASEAN’s centrality in regional cooperation.”
Near the end of his letter in July, Premier Li expressed his wish that mutual relations with ASEAN will “go from strength to strength” and his hope that the friendship between people in the region would be “everlasting.”
It remains to be seen how quickly these expressions of goodwill can be materialized. But if this is the path China and ASEAN have indeed chosen to travel, they will need extraordinary political will and patience to overcome their differences and forge a new foundation for trusting relations for the next 25 years.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Bangkok-based journalist and a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.