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Navigating the South China Sea issue at the Asean Summits

The 28th and 29th Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) Summits and Related Meetings kick off in Vientiane, Laos, today. This is the first time Asean will hold back-to-back summits as it seeks to streamline working methods, departing from the traditional arrangement of intra-regional discussions in the first half of the year and wider discussions with dialogue partners at the year-end meetings.

The 28th and 29th Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) Summits and Related Meetings kick off in Vientiane, Laos, today. This is the first time Asean will hold back-to-back summits as it seeks to streamline working methods, departing from the traditional arrangement of intra-regional discussions in the first half of the year and wider discussions with dialogue partners at the year-end meetings.

The four-day event will feature a marathon of high-level formal and informal meetings with various stakeholders and dialogue partners, but one stands out in particular — the Asean-China Summit to Commemorate the 25th Anniversary of Asean-China Dialogue Relations.

Under normal circumstances, the summits will be yet another opportunity for Beijing to kick its charm diplomacy into high gear, but two events in the past few months may throw a spanner into China’s best-laid plans.

The Asean-China divide was in full display at the Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers Meeting in Kunming in June, where China’s interference scuttled an agreed-upon joint Asean statement, which was to be released at the conclusion of the meeting. The Chinese hand was allegedly visible again at last month’s Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM), with Beijing’s allies almost derailing the joint communique.

While the common denominator of the two “incidents” — the South China Sea — still hangs over the Summit, it is unlikely to cause much, if any, embarrassment to China this time around for three reasons.

First, China has taken some heat off the issue by agreeing to conclude the Framework of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea by the middle of 2017. This tactical move to assuage rising unease at China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea among some of the Asean member states also serves to pre-empt accusations of China’s feet-dragging on the Code of Conduct negotiations.

Second, Asean member states will continue to take the cue from Manila on the South China Sea. Manila’s bilateral talks with China, following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 12 ruling against Beijing, eases the pressure on Asean to take a firmer stance on the maritime disputes.

Third, both sides — Asean and China — agree that the scope of bilateral relations is broader than the South China Sea disputes, and these should not overshadow the flourishing ties between neighbours. With bilateral trade hitting a high of US$345 billion (S$469 billion) in 2015, there is much to lose on both sides if relations take a downward turn.

These factors point to a “safe” Asean-China Summit, but it would be a missed opportunity for Asean if it were to keep to the Chinese script. The Commemorative Summit is a rare opportunity for Asean to catch Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s attention and convey its frank views on the region’s concerns with the Chinese leader.

DISUNITED ASEAN NOT IN CHINA’S INTERESTS

The South China Sea disputes go beyond maritime claims. They are a regional concern on many levels, including the freedom of navigation and overflight, the rule of law, and upholding the sanctity of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which Asean, China and 21 other states have committed to in vowing the peaceful resolution of conflicts. For Asean, the most critical issue centres on the detrimental effect of China’s management of the South China Sea disputes on the group’s unity. China is thought to have “friends” among the Asean member states that act as Trojan horses to do its bidding. Cambodia and Laos have often been singled out as being in the Chinese stable. Evidence seems to support this contention, at least in the case of Cambodia, which used its position as Asean Chair in 2012 to block the AMM joint communique and almost succeeded in doing so again at the recent AMM.

There were also aspersions cast on Brunei, with talks of the Sultanate having “made a deal” with China. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman’s absence in the July AMM also raises questions, coming after the Kunming meeting where his tough stance was said to have incurred Beijing’s wrath. Has China’s long political hand reached maritime South-east Asia as well?

China’s preoccupation with saving face by muffling discussions on the South China Sea disputes in Asean meetings is causing discord within Asean. Frustrations are mounting at Asean’s inability to muster a common position on the South China Sea.

In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remarked that “if Asean cannot deal with a major issue at its doorstep affecting its members, in the long run, nobody will take Asean seriously”.

Mr Lee’s assessment resonated with at least one other Asean leader. Delivering the 38th Singapore Lecture last week, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang remarked that “it would be useful for Asean to establish supplementary mechanisms to allow some degree of flexibility to better manage (new security threats)”.

In the short term, China’s strategy of quelling discontent is reaping benefits, but in the medium and long term, it harms China’s national interest. Curtailing a free flow of discussions on strategic issues within Asean also means that Asean will never be able to speak freely and frankly with China, depriving Beijing of a strategic medium to manage its relations with South-east Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Beijing must also realise that it will not be completely successful at muffling Asean. Discussions that are kept “off the Asean table” by the consensus rule will nevertheless take place at other tables. In strategic terms, Chinese actions are, in fact, pushing some Asean member states away from China and into the United States’ embrace.

Asean unity is not an anti-China front, nor is it a pro-US tool. To put it in perspective, China would lose out from a disunited Asean that has member states relying on other major powers for their own security. A united Asean will be in a stronger position to push back geopolitical pressures from major powers, ensuring that South-east Asia remains an open and inclusive region for one and all.

Given China’s deep and extensive engagement with the region, it stands to gain the most from a united Asean. Rather than working to undermine Asean unity, it should endeavour to strengthen it.

At the same time, Asean member states would do well to remember that its unity, which has shown signs of fraying of late, enables the 10 Southeast Asian states’ voices to be heard in an otherwise noisy world dominated by larger and more powerful states.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the Asean Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. The views here are his own.

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