What a difference a year—or, more to the point, a new host—makes. At around this time last year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations reeled from an unexpected scandal: the failure for the first time to issue a joint communiqué after a leaders’ summit. China had pressured host Cambodia, its close ally, not to allow any mention of the South China Sea disputes in the traditional closing statement; both the Philippines and Vietnam vigorously objected, but in the end Cambodia chose to side, not with its Asean partners, but with China.
Chinese overreach had immediate regional consequences. Beijing’s aggressive conduct in the South China Sea attracted renewed international attention. Cambodia felt the urgent need to repair its relations with neighboring Vietnam, one of the claimant countries. Not least, the largest Asean member, Indonesia, began a form of shuttle diplomacy, with support from Singapore, to try to repair the unexpected damage to Asean unity.
This Indonesian initiative, it became clear over the weekend, during the Asean summit hosted by Brunei, has effectively strengthened Asean’s resolve to commit China to a binding “code of conduct,” one which will govern maritime disputes as well as maritime cooperation in the region.
“We have to have the code of conduct,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in Bandar Seri Begawan. “Otherwise, uncertainty will prevail.”
With new Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi taking part in Asean exchanges for the first time, the association reached an agreement with Beijing to begin official consultations on the code of conduct, to lead to formal talks in September.
The language of the communiqué is worth a close read. The 90th paragraph of a 98-paragraph communiqué reads in full: “We discussed the situation and recent developments in the South China Sea. In this regard, we appreciated the exchange of views on the issues including initiatives and approaches to enhance trust, confidence and dialogue, and address incidents in the South China Sea. We also noted suggestions for a hotline of communication, as well as search and rescue of persons and vessels in distress. We further reaffirmed the importance of peace, stability, and maritime security in the region. We underscored the importance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea, and the ASEAN-China Joint Statement on the 10th Anniversary of the DOC. In this regard, we reaffirmed the collective commitments under the DOC to ensuring the resolution of disputes by peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, without resorting to the threat or use of force, while exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities.”
This is exactly the Philippine position, and it is good to see it restated in an official Asean statement. Even more important for resolving regional tensions is the last sentence of the next paragraph: “Taking into account the importance of the 10th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership in 2013, we look forward to the formal consultations between ASEAN and China at the SOM [Senior Officials’ Meeting] level on the COC [Code of Conduct] with an aim to reach an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which will serve to enhance peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”
It may be that Cambodia has realized that its membership in the Asean loses much of its potency if it is perceived as a mere Chinese proxy; it may be that Sultan Bolkiah of Brunei has put his entire weight behind the Indonesian initiative; it may be that Chinese assertiveness in advancing its claims to almost the entire South China Sea, and the refusal of both the Philippines and Vietnam to back down, has had the effect of strengthening Asean conviction about its “centrality in the evolving regional architecture”—in the words of the communiqué.
Whatever the reason, China has finally heard from Asean again on the vexing issue of competing maritime claims in the South China Sea. That is no small thing.