Asean’s ‘One China policy’ in South China Sea
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has survived its first serious test as a new community, one could even say with flying colors. Against all odds and predictions, it has come up with a common response to the maritime and territorial disputes that four of its members have with China in the South China Sea.
The wording of a joint statement by Asean foreign ministers at their meeting in Vientiane on Monday may not carry much weight to change the situation on the ground, or more precisely in the sea. Nevertheless, it is a position to which all 10 member-countries openly subscribe, although they have different interests and approaches in dealing with China, including in addressing the maritime disputes.
They defied earlier skepticism that the annual meeting could come up with a common position. Since Asean makes its rulings by consensus, it really takes just one member to botch any decision. Skeptics took their cue from the disastrous 2012 meeting in Phnom Penh when the foreign ministers failed to issue a communiqué for the first time in Asean’s history, then also over how they should approach China. In June, during a meeting between Asean and China foreign ministers in the Chinese city of Kunming, a statement referring to the South China Sea was released by Malaysia only to be withdrawn within hours because of China’s protest.
“We remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” reads Paragraph 174 of the communiqué adopted by all 10 members in Vientiane.
Paragraph 177 states: “We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”
No one can accuse Asean of skirting the thorny issue when eight of the 191 points in the statement were dedicated to the situation in the South China Sea.
What the statement does not do is directly name China as the main culprit. Also missing is any reference to the July 12 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, which said China’s activities in the South China Sea violated the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Although China is party to Unclos, it has stayed away from the arbitration suit filed by the Philippines. Beijing said that the PCA’s decision is “null and void” and that it would not abide by it.
Make no mistake about Asean’s common concerns, even though the wording was couched so as not to offend Beijing. That’s Asean diplomacy. The dividing line in Asean has been how to deal with China over the South China Sea disputes. Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei have overlapping claims in the area; China claims virtually the entire sea. In 2012, when the foreign ministers failed to produce a statement in Phnom Penh, it took Indonesia’s then foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, to tour the Asean capitals and get all members to agree on a text. The communiqué was released one week after the ministers had gone home.
No such mistake this time. Intensive lobbying, including a retreat called by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, bore fruit as the ministers produced their statement on Monday. Host Laos and Cambodia had opposed any discussion on the South China Sea, while the Philippines had wanted stronger wording. A few hours after they came to a consensus, the ministers met with their Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, among the many foreign ministers from Asean’s major trading partners that joined the annual gathering.
Asean needed to show a semblance of unity more than ever now, and its statement on the South China Sea raises some hopes that it can still do so at a time when most observers had given up hope.
The Asean Community was launched on Dec. 31—an event that has hardly made a dent on the lives of its 600 million people because their governments were lukewarm at best in hailing its arrival.
When the community idea was first broached by Asean leaders in 2003, they discussed concerns that the rapid economic rise of China then, and to a lesser extent of India, could marginalize Asean members and reduce them, including early Asian economic tigers Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, to mere satellites of the new Asian giant economies.
At the turn of the year in 2016, the urgency seemed to have disappeared even as the concerns expressed by Asean leaders 13 years ago had somewhat materialized. China has become the world’s second largest economy, and is the biggest trading partner of all Asean member-countries, and also a major source of badly needed financial investments.
While the claimant-countries are not backing off from their position in the South China Sea, they continue to pin their hopes on diplomacy. A negotiated settlement with China is the only viable course. The alternative, a military solution, is just unthinkable. While one or two Asean countries have formally, if not protectively, looked to the United States and its allies in Asia, they are still giving Asean diplomatic efforts a chance.
That conciliatory mood prevailed in Vientiane as the Asean foreign ministers hammered out a statement on the South China Sea. They still have one more card to play with China: The Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea, a document that China signed with Asean in 2002, by which all parties agreed to manage their conflicts peacefully without the use of power.
Asean has been trying to get China to turn this declaration into something more binding under a formal Code of Conduct. The Vientiane communiqué reiterated the call Asean has been making to China almost every year: Let’s speed up the negotiations.
With China now coming under international pressures for defying the PCA ruling, the Code of Conduct with Asean may offer it the face-saving exit from the impasse. Asean has extended its hand. The ball is in China’s court.
Endy Bayuni is editor in chief of The Jakarta Post, Indonesia.
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