SINGAPORE – There is an interesting collection of articles on Southeast Asia’s regional outlook for 2012-2013 published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies based here in this city state that touched on our problems with China. The narrative and the insights of Amitav Acharya, a visiting professorial fellow of the Institute from the American University in Washington DC, are particularly revealing of both Chinese and ASEAN attitudes.
Acharya recalls that during the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi in 2010, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton announced that the South China Sea was one of America’s core interests. That statement, according to Acharya, provoked rough talk from her Chinese counterpart, who is supposed to have looked at Singapore’s then Foreign Minister George Yeo and said, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that’s just a fact.”
Up until that time, China had been going out of its way to win the support of ASEAN member states. But Acharya observed that “the Hanoi meeting became a dramatic symbol of the abrupt conclusion of Beijing’s charm offensive.” Curiously, ASEAN’s reaction seemed to be one of fear. Acharya reports that “ASEAN didn’t want the South China Sea issue to be mentioned in the Declaration of the US-ASEAN Summit in September 2010…”
Carlyle A. Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, Canberra, corroborated that point. Writing an article for “thediplomat.com” entitled “Is the Philippines an Orphan”, Prof. Thayer recounted events in a recent ASEAN summit meeting that somehow indicate the sentiments of our regional partners.
Prof. Thayer thinks that the Philippines holds misconceived expectations over the roles that ASEAN and the US can play. The way I see it, China has simply successfully used its economic power to make countries like Indonesia and Malaysia think twice about crossing its path, even in defense of so-called ASEAN solidarity.
Prof. Thayer recalls that “ASEAN divisions over how to best handle sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea date back over a decade. ASEAN members and China first began negotiations on sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea in 2000. Even at this juncture, the Philippines pushed strongly for a Code of Conduct (COC) to constrain China’s ‘creeping assertiveness,’ but failed to gather sufficient support from its fellow ASEAN members and consequentially had to accept a watered down version in the form of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
“The DOC is merely a non-binding political statement calling on parties to undertake confidence building measures and cooperative activities pending the settlement of sovereignty disputes. Moreover, progress on implementing the DOC didn’t occur until last summer when China and the ASEAN member states finally adopted guidelines to implement the DOC.
“Even still, progress has been limited to setting up four expert working groups (marine environmental protection; marine scientific research; search and rescue operation; and transnational crime) and planning future workshops. Even a fifth proposed cooperative activity on safety of navigation and communication at sea proved too contentious an issue for China and ASEAN members to agree upon.”
It took a decade before ASEAN senior officials began drafting a more binding Code of Conduct or COC last year with the intention of presenting a final agreed upon draft to China for discussion. Thayer reports that “when ASEAN foreign ministers met in Cambodia in January 2012, however, it quickly became apparent that they were divided over three Filipino proposals.
“The first of these called for an ASEAN-sponsored meeting between China and the claimant states. The other two proposals advocated including provisions in the COC that would distinguish between disputed areas and non-disputed areas in the South China Sea and establishing a dispute settlement mechanism.
“Internal ASEAN divisions also resurfaced at the 20th ASEAN Summit held in Phnom Penh from April 3 to 4 under the chairmanship of Cambodia. Prior to the summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a high-profile visit to Cambodia, where he made clear to Prime Minister Hun Sen that Beijing opposed holding talks on a binding Code of Conduct too quickly.
“Whether acting under Chinese inducement or not, Cambodia, as ASEAN chair, reportedly removed formal discussion of the South China Sea from the summit agenda. The Philippines and Vietnam objected and pressed their case at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers held the day before the summit and again at the summit itself.
“The main area of disagreement at last month’s summit, however, was over the timing of China’s inclusion in the COC drafting process. At the pre-summit meeting, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa argued that ASEAN should ‘listen and…hear what China’s views are so that we can really develop a position that is cohesive and coherent.’ Cambodia supported this proposal.
“On the other hand, Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs del Rosario stated: ‘We’re saying that we’re happy to invite China but this should be done after the approval of the COC (by ASEAN). I think that we should be masters of our own destiny as far as the COC is concerned,’ adding that Vietnam expressed a similar sentiment. Del Rosario also made clear that as long as the Philippines and Vietnam objected, ASEAN would find it difficult to reach consensus on including China’s early in the drafting process.
“The Philippines and Vietnam also rejected outright a Chinese proposal to set up a 10-member group of experts and eminent statesmen that would help propose solutions. Other ASEAN members, particularly Indonesia, objected to the Philippines’ proposal to include a dispute settlement mechanism in the draft COC.”
Thus, Thayer rightly concludes that “Not only is ASEAN divided on the issue, but several of its members are critical of the Philippines handling of its dispute with China. One Malaysian commentator has gone so far as to assert that the Philippines hijacked the ASEAN Summit.”
On our current problems with China, Prof. Thayer is correct to point out that “ASEAN’s single minded focus on implementing the DOC’s confidence building measures and cooperative activities, meanwhile, simply doesn’t address the security challenges posed by Chinese assertiveness. A Code of Conduct that doesn’t identify the areas in dispute and which contains no enforcement mechanism will not constrain China from acting unilaterally.
“Both the DOC and COC are premised on maintenance of the status quo until sovereignty disputes are resolved. This is a false premise as long as China unilaterally responds to any activity it objects to within its nine-dash line ambit claim to the South China Sea.”
And this problem will be an important one that will test ASEAN solidarity. Prof. Zhu Feng, from the School of International Studies in Peking University in his contributed article to the ISEAS publication, pointed out that the China Sea problem is the most important sticking point in the Sino-ASEAN relations. Though the substance of this problem lies in disputes between China and only some ASEAN members, it has cast a shadow over the Sino-ASEAN relationship as a whole.”
Prof. Zhu says “it must be acknowledged that these disputes are inherently hard to resolve. Though confrontation over the South China Sea is primarily a competition for energy resources, it also inevitably involves territorial issues. Whether the Spratly Islands are seen as ‘core interests’ by the parties to the dispute or not, neither China, Vietnam nor the Philippines has much practical room for compromise…”
ASEAN now needs to play its cards right in balancing the competing interests of China and the United States in the region. China’s growing assertiveness towards “the small countries” it has current territorial disputes with should be seen by the rest of ASEAN as a portent of things to come. Philippines and Vietnam today but it could well be Malaysia and Indonesia tomorrow.
In a way, Singapore is starting to feel this strategic need to balance China off. Limited basing of American forces in this city state is a way of sending a message back to China to mind its manners. I am sure the comment made by a Chinese diplomat to the Singaporean Foreign Minister about “the small countries” was an important input in the formulation of the foreign policy of this smallest of ASEAN member countries.
For now, we have a big selling job to get the rest of ASEAN to support us in getting China to negotiate on the China Sea issues. Our ASEAN partners are scared of China, protective of short term trade and economic benefits of their China ties and not likely to risk China’s ire to come to our aid. But that is simply ASEAN being ASEAN… all talk and cocktail parties. ASEAN simply must make itself felt at last in a substantive way and it is our job to see that happens soon.