ASEAN not so divided on the South China Sea

August 24, 2016

ASEAN not so divided on the South China Sea

by  Noor, ISIS Malaysia

Clouded by controversy even before it began, the recently concluded 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in Vientiane, Laos was conspicuous for two things: who was and was not present; and, perhaps more importantly, what was and was not discussed.


While Malaysia’s Foreign Minister, Anifah Aman — who had been expected at the AMM until as late as 24 July — was ultimately absent, both Aung San Suu Kyi and Perfecto Yasay, Jr participated in their first AMM as Myanmar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs, respectively. Both attended amid uncertain expectations surrounding not only their official positions, but also how they would navigate discussions on the South China Sea dispute, just two weeks after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled heavily in favour of the Philippines.

Image result for Myanmar's Foreign Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi

As it turned out, both Suu Kyi and Yasay proved able debutants, balancing national and regional interests with the typically understated nuance of seasoned ASEAN diplomats. Suu Kyi and Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, met on the sidelines of the AMM to affirm both countries’ desire to cooperate while shelving talk of contentious bilateral and regional issues. There was no discussion of the South China Sea dispute, as Myanmar is not a party to it. Yet, among ASEAN counterparts, Suu Kyi reportedly stressed a defence of ASEAN credibility and international law in line with, but also going slightly further than, her government’s take on the PCA award.

Image result for Perfecto Yasay, Jr

Although Yasay (pic above) faced domestic criticism — including from his predecessor, Albert Del Rosario, who felt that Yasay should have pushed harder for explicit mention of the PCA ruling in the AMM joint communique — the Philippines still got effectively what it wanted. Claimants recommitted to the peaceful processes of dispute resolution, in accordance with universally agreed principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). All this was achieved without naming or shaming any one country and without deviating from the language of previous ASEAN statements.

The PCA ruling of course provided an opportunity for ASEAN claimants — through the Philippines — to push back with a brand new stamp of legal authority against China. So when the AMM eventually decided to remain silent on the ruling, it signalled to critics yet another example of an increasingly divided ASEAN soon after the debacle of the Special ASEAN–China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming in June. After all, there had been earlier reports of obstruction to any reference of the ruling even prior to the AMM. This legitimately gave rise to concerns that the long shadow of the stalemate during Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012 would similarly eclipse Laos.

In reality, ASEAN unity on the South China Sea, which was at risk of fraying even further, may have just been salvaged, albeit in characteristically banal ASEAN fashion. Twenty pages into the AMM joint communique, the ministers referred, without a hint of irony, to the affirmation of international law including the United Nations Charter, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and ‘other relevant international laws, treaties and conventions’ pledged during the Kunming meeting.

The ministers then devoted eight paragraphs just to the South China Sea — the longest section in its consideration of regional and international issues. The meeting noted the concerns of only ‘some Ministers’ regarding land reclamation and escalation of activities. But otherwise, in all other matters, all the ministers agreed on the procedures that needed to be taken to restore trust and confidence towards the peaceful resolution of the dispute ‘in accordance with international law’, including UNCLOS.

The 49th AMM joint communique goes further than the 48th one, mentioning non-militarisation and self-restraint (twice), as well as to emphasise the need for ‘substantive’ progress (twice) in the context of implementation of the DOC and negotiations for the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct (COC).

As if to distance and distinguish itself from the Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN just a few years prior, the Lao chair went on to discuss the South China Sea in all but one of its chairman’s statements: on the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference (PMC) 10+1 Sessions with the Dialogue Partners, the sixth East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, and the 23rd ASEAN Regional Forum.

Image result for South China Sea

The Joint Statement of the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN Member States and China on the Full and Effective Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea could have been stronger in explicitly listing international law processes as a form of peaceful dispute resolution. But that version would probably not have been released.

The endless chimes of unity and centrality that ASEAN tries to peal to itself often screech hollow. But in this instance and with regard to the difficult issue of the South China Sea, there was indeed a return to harmony among all 10 ASEAN member-states. The refrain was not of the PCA ruling, as some had hoped. But the deft leadership of the Lao chair ensured that there was a distinct undertone of agreement on the way forward for the dispute.

Elina Noor is Director of Foreign Policy and Security Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia.


12 thoughts on “ASEAN not so divided on the South China Sea

  1. Stop quoting PCA and its Rulings. It is illegal and misleading. It is a farce. UN has already categorily stressed it had NOTHING to do with it. Yet, why the world media have repeatedly made reference to it as if it is legitimate ?

    Keeping silent on PCA is a stumbling block to any practical solution.
    If anything , AMM should instead condemn the use PCA to divide the cooperation among the ASEAN countries in finding a peaceful and mutually beneficial solutions with China on the SCS disputes.

    Get real !

  2. The PCA is neither an UN agency nor related to UN body, read their announced statements in their websites?.
    Permanent Court of Arbitration clarifies role in South China Sea case,

    UN distances itself from Permanent Court of Arbitration, had No role in Philippines case vs China

    The arbitral court set up on SCS was ad hoc, unilateral and manipulated by Philippine’s colonial masters, the US and Japan as its political tools to contain China’s rise. China rejected and did not participate in the arbitration since day one, what arbitration? The dispute is out of the scope!

    The ruling is illegal, null and void and yet the author wants Asean to follow? No way, Asean is not stupid, maybe Noor is! How come he is so ignorant being a member of SIS Malaysia? Shame you as Malaysian!

  3. “It is illegal and misleading. It is a farce.”

    Really? The PCA has been in existence in the Hague since 1899 and no organization can exist that long, if it is truly irrelevant. Go read it up. Do you even know the meaning of Arbitration? PRC obviously knew they were in violation of UNCLOS, which they had ‘accidentally’ signed! See here:

    “The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides for a dispute resolution mechanism regarding maritime boundaries in which member states can choose either the

    1. International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea
    2. International Court of Justice,
    3. arbitral tribunal (constituted in accordance with Annex VII, UNCLOS)
    4. a special arbitral tribunal (constituted in accordance with Annex VIII).
    If two member states have elected different dispute resolution measures, the third option is to be used.[27] As of August 2016, the PCA has administered 12 cases initiated by States under Annex VII to the UNCLOS.,[28] thus administring all cases initiated under this Annex except for one.[29]” (Wiki, of course)

    Grow up lah.. Losing face-water is sometimes worse than death for a Chinapek like you, ya? PRC is behaving exactly like the Ugly American..

    ASEAN is doing what it takes even when it’s cojones are being squeezed by the regional wannabe taikor. Next year, they will probably come up with a louder squeak, depending on whether the RIMPAC allies are ready – which all the littoral states and NATO participated in.

    “SIS Malaysia?” Wrongways
    It’s ISIS-lah.. SIS is something else, okay? So you can’t even quote properly eh?

  4. In the big picture, while individual ASEAN states have different priorities with China, overall they reject China expansion by force in the region. It’s what it really means. The real danger is China deluding itself it can and have wrong national priorities. ASEAN need a healthy, positive China. If instead it prioritise wrongly, it disservice to itself and even become a burden to the region.

  5. “It is illegal and misleading. It is a farce.”

    I stand by the statement in refering to PCA’s rulings and proceedings on the dispute between Philippines and China.

    The VALIDITY of the rulings in any arbitration is subject to :
    1 both parties Must agree to Participate.
    2 both parties Must agree to the Choice of Judges.
    3 both parties must agree to the points of reference under dispute.
    4 both parties shall Pay for the expenses incurred, equally.

    These is what Exactly an Arbitration means in every sense.

    To further clarify,
    UN had already stressed that it had NOTHING to do with it (this case), though Philippine or any party can proceed UNILATERALLY under “The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)” or under any other conventions.

    Clearly, Philippines is, itself, in total VIOLATION of an Arbitration.

    Get real !

  6. The Philippine Sea, according to the Pinoys.. Howzat?
    What the PCA ruling did was clearly a moral and ethical Victory for the Littoral States of ASEAN against the belligerency of PRC. But if you guys still insisting on getting 9-dash orgasms – Carry On..

    PRC don’t even have the guts take out Kinmen, ROC’s minute island just 2 km off the Fujian coast and they wanna to project big-dick power? The stone that is Taiwan is much more interesting ya? Why scarededy cat of USofA or the rest of World Opinion? After all, them folks are already engaging in all sorts of warfare – what we’d call unrestricted war – like cyber, media, economic and psychological attacks. Only thing that hasn’t exploded is the military.. Why is that?

    UN? Hahaha.. They can’t even figure out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after more than 6 decades – in fact almost all it’s resolutions are defanged, dead in water or balless com[romises. UNSC can’t come within a fart’s distance to impose whatever numerous ‘edicts’ they regularly churn out. How’s that for reality? All they have is somewhat like the sermons of the Dalai Lama or the Pope – but absolutely soulless.

    Get Real.

    Btw, Wrongways, KKK ideology more rightly belong to monomaniacal chauvinists like you. Wrong, say wrong lah.. Why make it so difficult for yourself? But hey, i do like your -stan, except that it’s linguistic roots are sorta Persian for Place or Country? And all this while, i thought you were a Chinapek.. I would rather you use -wan – like Taiwan. Anyway, Taiwan is a better place to visit than PRC, don’t you think? But Taiwan doesn’t have ‘quantum’ computers., ‘cuz i think you really don’t know what quantum computing is..

  7. Yes, get real !

    PCA rulings and proceeding is ILLIGITIMATE.It should be understood and stressed publicly and clearly by the ASEAN leaders.

    It should Not be used to mislead and confuse the ordinary masses around the world, particularly those from the Asian region, if the claimant parties involved are determined to find peaceful and mutually beneficial solutions, without the interference of Outsiders.

    PCA may have some “ethical and moral” values attached,but it has little or no relevancy in this context of our discussions

    The issue here is, the Philippines unilaterally sponsored Arbitration (PCA) has NO legal standing, whatsoever. With that I shall close the discussion on the subject.

  8. C.L.Familiaris//ISIS, you understand Kllau rightly said? You are worse than Ku Klux Klan. Taiping Island in scs is an island itself, legally belongs to ROC or China, don’t cheat!!

  9. There’s no arguing with microcephalic legalists, is there? Nope.
    Rule by Law and not of Law – which is actually about ethics, geography, history, national identity and of course ‘economics’?

    But i agree that illegitimacy is about having only One Parent. Thank God, some ASEAN countries can distinguish between right and wrong, unlike some flakes.. I think most of us have at least 2 parents.

    Didn’t know Zika existed so far back in time though!
    Taiping Islands? Where’s that? Belong to either ROC or PRC? What in legality’s name, does that mean?

    So when is the shooting war gonna start? Them Pinoys are a pushover (except when Duterte smells drugs!), but those Viets are garang.., i tell ya. Malaysia? Dah Jual Murah..

    Btw, the ROC is willing to sacrifice themselves for anything up to a fortnight to a month – if the Reds invade.. Then their Taikor takes over, by first wiping out the CCP-PLA C&C with an aimed non-nuclear EMP. Stuff of i heard from the late Tom Clancy. Other alternative is to lace Aedes mosquitoes with Zika, and send it thru Guangdong.

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