Rules-based regional order backed by US, ASEAN
RANCHO MIRAGE (California) — The United States and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Tuesday (Feb 16), California time (Wednesday, Singapore time) pledged their commitment to a rules-based regional order after a historic summit, signalling a pushback against China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea just before news broke that Beijing has moved missiles to an island it controls in the disputed waters.
In a joint statement following two days of talks, President Barack Obama and the 10 ASEAN leaders underlined their “firm adherence to a rules-based regional and international order” and “a shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force”.
The Sunnylands Declaration added that both sides will ensure “maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas.”
While the language of the communique echoed previous ASEAN statements and made no direct reference to China, experts say that coming at the end of the first summit hosted by the US President for South-east Asian leaders, it clearly reflects growing regional concerns over Beijing’s massive island reclamation and construction of military facilities in the disputed South China Sea.
These concerns would have been heightened by news on Wednesday that China had earlier this month deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to one of the disputed islands it controls there.
“Given that ASEAN has always shied away from blaming China directly for rising tensions in the South China Sea, this was the best outcome that could have been achieved,” said Dr Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, referring to the declaration.
“But it does send an unmistakable signal to Beijing that many of the ASEAN members are increasingly concerned about China’s assertive actions and the pressing need for a comprehensive code of conduct to arrest tensions and promote cooperation.”
Speaking at the summit’s closing press conference, Mr Obama said the leaders had discussed the need for tangible steps to ease tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarisation of disputed areas.
“Any disputes between claimants in the region must be resolved peacefully, through legal means, such as the upcoming arbitration ruling under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS),” said Mr Obama, referring to a case brought by the Philippines to an international tribunal challenging China’s claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea. China has refused to take part in the proceedings and maintained that it has no hostile intent in the disputed waters, which is also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The US has mounted freedom-of-navigation patrols there in recent months, to show that American vessels can sail in international waters at any time, a move Mr Obama said on Wednesday it will continue to do.
“We will support the right of all countries to do the same. We will continue to help our allies and partners strengthen their maritime capabilities.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Wednesday reiterated Beijing’s opposition to Washington’s involvement in the disputed waters.
“Relevant countries from outside the region should not flex their military muscles in the South China Sea and should not entice regional countries to carry out joint military exercises or patrol activities targeting a third party,” Mr Hong told reporters.
The Sunnylands summit is the first between the US and ASEAN since both sides elevated ties to a Strategic Partnership last November.
On Wednesday, Mr Obama said the summit has put the US-ASEAN partnership on “a new trajectory that will carry to greater heights in the decades ahead”.
He added that both sides have made progress on trade and investment and had agreed to launch a new effort to help all ASEAN nations meet the criteria of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, of which four are so far members along with the US. He also announced an initiative, dubbed US-ASEAN Connect, which would involve a network of hubs across the region to “to better coordinate our economic engagement and connect more of our entrepreneurs, investors and businesses with each other.”
Speaking to Singapore media after the special summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the Sunnylands summit reflects how “America gives weight to the ASEAN partnership.”
“This administration wants to do all it can to institutionalise it (ASEAN-US partnership) so that into the next administration, whoever is president and whichever party is in power will take it another step forward, which is good for ASEAN and good for the US,” said Mr Lee.
He however expressed concern about the rhetoric against the TPP coming out of the US presidential campaign. “In a way, it reflects a certain mood on the ground which is not enthusiastic about trade,” he said, adding that if candidates work up these sentiments, it would be make it harder for them later if they in fact want to sign it.
The TPP is now pending ratification by all 12 countries, and faces a difficult debate in the Congress where there is disagreement over whether it will benefit Americans.
The next ASEAN-US leaders’ meeting will be held in September when Mr Obama makes his first ever visit to Laos.