Why is Asean afraid of China?
Four claimants to parts of the disputed South China Sea are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean): the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam. And yet, after its countless year-round meetings, Asean has issued nothing but vapid, hollow and repetitive statements on China’s continued expansionism in and militarization of the disputed area.
The reason for this is that any statement issued by Asean should be done through consensus and if any member
objects, then it is rejected or revised.
But the bigger reason is that some members of Asean such as Laos and Cambodia, and now the Philippines, are beholden to China because of the largesse that they have received from it.
After the ruling in July 2016 of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that junked China’s ownership claim of almost the entire South China Sea and recognized Philippine sovereignty over the Kalayaan Group of Islands, the Philippines could have led in calling for a more assertive Asean statement against China’s threat to the region’s stability.
But the decision of President Duterte to shelve the arbitral ruling in favor of wider economic collaboration with China has precluded such a move by Manila, more so now that Beijing has pledged to finance 12 projects in the Philippines worth $4.4 billion. This is on top of the outright grant of P3.6 billion for the construction of two Pasig River bridges and drug rehabilitation centers in Mindanao.
Clearly these are the reasons why the Philippines has kept silent while China has seized and built military structures in the three big reefs in the Kalayaan Group of Islands which the arbitral court has recognized as ours. These are the Kagitingan (known internationally as Fiery Cross), Panganiban (Mischief) and Zamora (Subi) reefs.
As if to emphasize Asean’s timidity, after its ministerial meeting in Singapore on Feb. 6, Asean merely “took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.” Singapore has assumed the chairmanship of Asean for this year.
The Singapore meeting has also doused hopes that a Code of Conduct would be adopted within the year. Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a statement that because it needs a “complicated negotiation,” the Code of Conduct could not be agreed on this year contrary to the pledge made by China and Asean in Manila in 2017 that it could be hammered out within one year after both sides agreed on the framework for the negotiation.
Balakrishnan also warned that territorial claims will not be resolved with a Code of Conduct in place, adding that there will be no shortage of very sensitive issues “that will take a lot of innovation and imagination on the part of the diplomats, and ultimately an exercise of political will.”
The adoption of a Code of Conduct was formally agreed on in 2002. But it has never been finalized because China insists on a nonbinding accord.
Conflicting statements by officials of the Duterte administration have also contributed to China’s aggressive action in the disputed area.
The recent statement of Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano that China has assured the Philippines that it would not engage in further construction in the area is a pathetic attempt by the government to cover up for its ineptitude in dealing with the issue.
After drawing much flak for saying that the Duterte administration relies on China’s “good faith” in its military infrastructure buildup in the disputed area, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque is now saying that the government has been protesting China’s actions. But he fails to mention how and when these protests were made.
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Alito L. Malinao is a former diplomatic reporter and news editor of the Manila Standard. He teaches journalism at Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”
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