Member nations’ interests are so diverse that a unified response to Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea is proving impossible.

Since the tense naval standoff between the Philippines and China over ownership of the Scarborough Shoal erupted on April 10, the lack of support for Manila from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has been striking. Not only has Asean failed to close ranks behind one of its members, there hasn’t been a peep out of the organization on the dispute—one of the most serious in the South China Sea since the mid-1990s.

Asean’s deafening silence is disappointing, but not surprising. The member states are divided on how best to deal with the problem due to differing national interests, including the value they place on their relationships with China. The result is a lack of cohesion and inaction.

The central fault line within Asean is between members who have significant economic and strategic interests in the South China Sea and those who do not. The first group, the littoral states, is composed of the four Asean members who make territorial claims in the South China Sea—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—as well as Indonesia and Singapore.

Even within the littorals, opinions are divided. For Vietnam and the Philippines, their disputes with China over sovereignty of the Spratly Islands and other atolls have become major national security concerns and have driven their recent military modernization programs. Malaysia and Brunei, on the other hand, enjoy the luxury of distance from China and have tended to downplay the dispute. Moreover, the claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei overlap, preventing the four countries from presenting a united front.

Then there are Indonesia and Singapore, who make no territorial claims in the South China Sea, but are alarmed at Beijing’s expansive claims. Indonesia has formally challenged China’s claims at the United Nations, while Singapore has called on China to clarify them.

European Pressphoto AgencyPresident Benigno Aquino of the Philippines.

The second group, the non-littorals, comprises Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand, and they have been noticeably silent about the South China Sea issue. They do not see themselves as having a direct stake in the dispute and do not consider the Spratlys to be a pressing concern. Plus, over the past two decades China has cultivated close political, economic and security ties with these four countries, which their governments do not want to risk damaging by taking positions against Beijing.

Cambodia has been particularly keen to avoid upsetting China. As chair of Asean, this year it proposed keeping the dispute off the organization’s formal agenda. And at a summit meeting in April, Cambodia argued that China should be involved in drafting a binding code of conduct with Asean from the beginning of any conflict resolution management process. Both positions put it firmly at odds with Vietnam and the Philippines.

Asean does at least have a bottom-line consensus on the South China Sea: The dispute should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law and without recourse to force. The organization has also stated that Also, member states and China should pursue confidence-building measures to lower tensions. But beyond this basic statement, differing national perspectives make agreement on how to deal with China, manage the dispute and seek resolution problematic.

These difficulties were brought into sharp relief last year when the Philippines proposed transforming the South China Sea into a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation, or ZoPFFC. Manila’s plan was to “enclave” the Spratlys as a disputed area, demilitarize the atolls and then establish a multilateral development agency to jointly manage maritime resources.

The imaginative initiative, however, was a nonstarter. China flatly rejected it on the familiar grounds that the dispute is a bilateral problem that requires a bilateral solution.

But the idea could have still gained some traction had other Asean members supported it, but only Vietnam did. As a matter of policy, Asean does not take a position on the competing claims of its members, nor those of China. To “segregate” the South China Sea into disputed and non-disputed areas, however, Asean would have to come out against China’s claims—which is unacceptable to some members. For all intents and purposes, the ZoPFFC is now dead in the water.

This hasn’t helped intra-Asean relations. The two members at the pointy end of disputes with China, the Philippines and Vietnam, are invariably disappointed with Asean’s wishy-washiness over the South China Sea. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that only Cambodia had suggested China play a role from the get go and that this had led to a “big disagreement.”

Lack of support from within Asean has then led Hanoi and Manila to pursue additional strategies, including closer defense links with Washington. Debate over the role the U.S. should play in the South China Sea dispute exacerbates the divisions within Asean. Some members are concerned that a more proactive role by Washington will simply antagonize China and complicate the search for a resolution.

The South China Sea dispute has moved to the top of Asia’s security agenda. Tensions are likely to increase as competition for oil and gas intensifies and the militarization of the dispute continues apace. Yet the compromises necessary to achieve a negotiated settlement are out of reach, as the claimants have moved to strengthen their jurisdictional claims.

With tensions rising, the weight of expectations on Asean to become proactive and articulate solutions to the dispute will only become heavier. Regrettably, recent events show Asean cannot live up to those expectations and, on current trends, will allow Beijing to pick off individual members.

Mr. Storey is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is the author of “Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security” (Routledge, 2011).

Source: Wall Street Journal


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