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Asean, China need reality check on South China Sea issue

Asean (the Association of South-east Asian nations) has let itself down again for buckling under external pressure and whitewashing the chairman’s statement of the 30th Asean Summit, which concluded in Manila over the weekend. Not for the first time, territorial disputes in the South China Sea were the spoiler.

Asean, China need reality check on South China Sea issue

Asean leaders at the 30th Asean Summit in Manila on April 29. Photo: Reuters

Asean (the Association of South-east Asian nations) has let itself down again for buckling under external pressure and whitewashing the chairman’s statement of the 30th Asean Summit, which concluded in Manila over the weekend. Not for the first time, territorial disputes in the South China Sea were the spoiler.

The Philippines’ decision to distance the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) award from Asean last year had prevented a possible showdown between the regional organisation and China, much to the relief of all parties.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s outreach to Beijing also helped to stabilise the Philippines-China relationship, a positive outcome that rubbed off on to Asean.

For its part, China extended an olive branch to Asean by dangling the early conclusion of the framework on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, a vital first step towards an elusive legally binding COC.

Notwithstanding China’s continuing efforts to bolster its military presence on reclaimed islands in the strategic waterway, the prevailing mood was one of guarded optimism and cooperation.

Asean showed good faith in heading off intense international pressure to play up the PCA award, which never even made it to the draft of the chairman’s statement.

But the divisive conflict nevertheless returned to haunt Asean.

A delay in issuing the chairman’s statement, a phenomenon that is fast becoming the “new normal”, was the first sign of trouble at the summit.

The leaders differed on the wording on the South China Sea section, with objections over references to China’s land reclamation and militarisation activities. The region’s concerns over China’s increased military profile on the reclaimed features were eventually glossed over as “recent developments”.

In contrast, the chairman’s statement for the 28th and 29th summits, held under the chairmanship of Laos, had explicitly said that Asean took note of “concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations”, and the grouping emphasised “the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in addressing the conflict”.

The dramatic climb-down was disappointing.

REVERSAL OF COURSE

In fact, as one of the two “frontline” states in warding off China’s advances in the South China Sea and its standing as an Asean founding member, the Philippines was expected to do right by Asean in guiding a consensus towards a baseline position, which in Asean parlance, refers to treading on the tried and tested views and wordings of the past summits.

Rather than holding its ground, Asean has reversed course, making it doubly hard for future summits and chairs to affirm an accurate reflection of the region’s deepening concerns of the strategic and security implications of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

It is unfair to point an accusing finger at the Philippines for “selling out” Asean to China, as it is unlikely to be the only country that bowed to Beijing’s pressure, but the turn of events does cast doubts on Manila’s handling of the chairman’s statement.

At the very least, the Philippines will be remembered for failing its first major test as Asean chair, in contrast to how Myanmar and Laos, two countries with substantive economic ties with China, passed commendably.

Seen from a wider strategic angle, the South China Sea disputes brought to the fore two central Asean issues. First, the South China Sea is the most visible and public clash of national and regional interests among the 10 South-east Asian states.

Asean’s track record on the disputed sea suggests national interests will always prevail, putting Asean’s viability as a community in serious doubt. What future does the regional organisation hold when the “region” is furthest from the minds of its leaders?

Second, the South China Sea is telling about how China views Asean. China is guilty of using its enormous political and economic power to influence Asean through “friendly parties” within the regional organisation, but do not expect Beijing to offer any apologies soon. China’s constricting embrace will continue, resulting in the shrinking of Asean’s political-strategic space.

On the other hand, the degree to which China goes about ensuring an outcome amenable to its ears suggests that Beijing is sensitive to Asean’s collective voice.

It could and has punished individual Asean states deemed recalcitrant in its eyes, but taking on the whole grouping would be a much more dangerous and costly political gambit. Asean’s failure has been its inability to think and act as one.

China’s penchant for “saving face” means that it will continue to keep an eagle eye on future Asean summits and exercise its well-rehearsed lobbying tactics to censor discussions and official statements. This does not bode well for Asean, which celebrates its golden jubilee this year. No doubt, China won yet another round of the summit “battle”, but it continues to lose the “war” in gaining the region’s trust.

REGIONAL DISTRUST OF CHINA

A survey of 318 South-east Asian academics, policymakers, business people, civil society leaders and the media — conducted by the Asean Studies Centre at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, and which will be released later this week — supports the view that China has a low trust factor in the region.

Seventy-four per cent of the respondents recognise China as the most influential power in the region but 72 per cent of the respondents share their views that they have little or no confidence in China to “do the right thing” in upholding global peace, security, prosperity and governance.

China’s persistent arm-twisting in muzzling Asean’s voice at the 30th Asean Summit will serve only to deepen the region’s distrust of China. Asean and the world will form their views on China based on the latter’s actions on the ground and not through its success in keeping sensitive words such as “land reclamation” and “militarisation” out of Asean’s official documents.

When Asean ignores the reality in its statements, it weakens its own credibility. By the same token, when this “reality” is kept off the Asean plate, it does not mean that it is not real and its consequences can be ignored.

Asean has taken a few steps back at its 30th summit in putting national concerns above regional interests and for continuing to privilege diplomatic niceties over substance.

China has also lost ground by fuelling the region’s growing distrust towards Beijing. It defies rationality and logic that both sides continue on a course that serves nobody’s interests.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of Asean Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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