Recent Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) summit meetings have been subsumed by unresolved territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The controversy has not only strained ASEAN’s key operating principles, including consensus among its 10 member states, but has also highlighted the rising rivalry between China and United States, two countries which are jostling for a strategic upper hand in Southeast Asia.
The unresolved and escalating issue has raised questions on the often-celebrated success of regionalism in Southeast Asia, particularly with the implementation of a new ASEAN Economic Community scheduled for 2015. Questions are thus rising over whether ASEAN can stick to its founding objective of maintaining a unified, strategic balance against larger regional powers, namely China.
Pragmatic leadership has been the glue that has held ASEAN together and guided the grouping through difficult strategic issues in the past. The debacle of last year’s ASEAN summit held in Phnom Penh, where group members failed for the first time in the association’s history to issue a joint statement, highlighted the growing inherent contradictions and competing national agendas of member states.
Cambodia’s stance against including any mention of the South China Sea disputes in a joint communique was viewed as acquiescence to external Chinese pressure. Perceptions of outside manipulation of the association’s inner workings was a deciding factor in the Philippines decision to take its complaint against China to a United Nations tribunal rather than rely on ASEAN to arrive at a mutually agreed code of conduct in the South China Sea.
The Philippines’ decision to use alternative forums to safeguard its territorial claims vis-a-vis China has weakened ASEAN’s standing as a unified bloc. Tensions broke out into the open when President Benigno Aquino openly accused host Cambodia of sabotaging ASEAN’s interest for bilateral concessions from China. Indonesia helped to bridge the differences through face-saving shuttle diplomacy, but to many analysts the damage to group cohesion had been done.
While the small sultanate of Brunei is ASEAN’s chairman this year, much depends on Indonesia’s role. In recent consultations among ASEAN senior ministers, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has apparently taken the lead in working towards developing a mutually acceptable code of conduct for the South China Sea.
While there have been some signs of positive momentum, including at the recently concluded summit meeting in Brunei, claimant countries have not yet acted on an Indonesian proposal to establish hotlines to avoid conflicts from spiraling out of control in the disputed territories.
Brunei Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah said after last week’s ASEAN summit meeting that members agreed to a broad “two step” approach to dealing with the maritime disputes. “Firstly, the overlapping claims are for the claimant states to deal with. Secondly, both ASEAN and China wish to promote a calm and peaceful atmosphere and to urgently work on the code of conduct.”
Malaysia and Singapore have been the other two major countries that have been influential in steering ASEAN over the years. Singapore’s small size has been a limitation but its strategic location has given it the leverage to deal with major world powers. Its robust relations with the US in particular have raised doubts among certain neighbors who see external powers as intrusive in regional affairs. Its role in pushing through ASEAN trade cooperation has been universally welcomed.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have led the way in strategic cooperation. The three ASEAN members established a trilateral naval cooperation arrangement known as MALSINDO to patrol the pirated-infested and strategically important Malacca Straits. While nobody has yet to propose similar joint patrols in the South China Sea, ASEAN claimant states like the Philippines and Vietnam that have locked horns with China clearly want ASEAN to play a more decisive role in the disputes.
Some believe Brunei, ASEAN’s current chair, is uniquely positioned to cobble together a new grouping consensus on the South China Sea. Brunei, a small oil-rich sultanate of less than half a million people with small claims in the South China Sea, became a member of ASEAN in 1984, the first country to be included after the organization was originally formed in 1967. Although Brunei’s trade with China is relatively large, estimated at US$1.3 billion last year, some analysts believe it has strong diplomatic incentive to reaffirm ASEAN’s standing as a unified, strategic bloc.
To be sure, consensus inside ASEAN is becoming harder to achieve, especially as China plays divide-and-rule politics among certain member states like Cambodia. In view of Myanmar, another China ally, assuming ASEAN’s chairmanship in 2014, the Philippines in particular may feel that if Brunei can not make significant progress towards developing a binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, ASEAN will be impotent in playing a meaningful role until at least 2015 and will look to outside actors like the US to bolster its claims.
Although the Philippines has applied for international mediation under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it has also reaffirmed its commitment to support any ASEAN effort to bring about a consensus on the disputes. Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said after summit meetings held last week in Brunei that there was “solidarity in terms of readiness to convince China that we should move on with the CoC”.
China has consistently expressed a preference for dealing with the territorial disputes on a bilateral basis. Beijing will host a meeting with senior ASEAN foreign ministers meeting later this year. Del Rosario told reports that ASEAN member Thailand proposed a pre-meeting gathering among ASEAN foreign ministers to reinforce their solidarity on the South China Sea issue before they meet with China.
Leadership will play a strong role in ASEAN’s direction and decision-making in the months ahead. Brunei’s claims in the South China Sea are small compared to the Philippines and Vietnam and it has been the least vocal claimant in pressing its maritime claims. That can be viewed as both a strength and weakness, analysts say.
The grouping’s members realize that they cannot isolate any major power from their calculus in the evolving system in world affairs and rising economic integration, including with China. But if not properly handled, escalating disputes in the South China Sea threaten to upset the regional peace and stability that has fostered recent unprecedented economic growth in the region, much of it driven by growing trade with China.
China no doubt realizes that other regional powers, including the US, are quietly observing developments in the maritime disputes and making their own strategic calculations. After years of peaceful commercial diplomacy, Beijing would seemingly prefer to avoid pushing ASEAN towards these regional competitors while weakening its strategic position in its own perceived sphere of influence.
In this complex geopolitical game, regional powers like Indonesia will be compelled to hold ASEAN together and support smaller claimant states such as Brunei to benefit from its distinctive position vis-a-vis China. An ASEAN consensus on the South China Sea would represent a powerful strategic counterweight to China and mitigate the risks of over-reliance on outside powers like the US to provide strategic balance.
To maintain the regional peace, ASEAN needs to recommit to its founding principles of unity and consensus. While Brunei may have the intention and incentive to push that agenda, it is still not clear it has the weight or authority to bring ASEAN back together and achieve a meaningful peace vis-a-vis China in the South China Sea.
Source : Asia Times dated April 30, 2013