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Thursday, July 26, 2012

What now for ASEAN amid China-U.S. rivalry?

Special to The Japan Times

KANEOHE, Hawaii — In mid-July, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations convened its scheduled meetings in Phnom Penh — the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

For the first time in its 45-year history, ASEAN failed to agree on even a joint communiqué at the end of the AMM. This did not bode well for a bloc that is trying to create a security community let alone a regional economic community by 2015.

The meetings foundered on South China Sea issues, reflecting deep divisions among ASEAN members. The deal-breaker was Manila's insistence on including a reference to its recent confrontation with China at Scarborough Shoal, and the 2012 ASEAN Chair Cambodia's decision to not issue a statement rather than include such a reference. Vietnam also wanted a statement of "respect for EEZs (exclusive economic zones)" — also unacceptable to Cambodia.

Philippines Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario said the impasse on the statement was due to "pressure, duplicity and intimidation" by China. But Cambodia insisted it was not influenced by any nation and that it had "taken a position of principle." It argued that the Philippines and Vietnam had tried to turn their disputes with China into a dispute between China and ASEAN as a whole.

This significant disagreement was likely to complicate if not disrupt negotiations on an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct for activities in the South China Sea.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan called the failure a "hiccup". But others considered it more like a seizure. Carlyle Thayer, an Australia-based analyst, said "what this indicates is that China has managed to break [ASEAN] insulation and influence one particular country." He added that this event is likely to "poison ASEAN proceedings from now until November, when the next round of ASEAN and related summits are scheduled in Phnom Penh."

After a day to ponder the results and next steps, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalagawa, who had tried behind the scenes to bridge the differences, declared defiantly, "I am even more determined to push for the CoC (Code)."

Others pointed out that ASEAN had at least agreed among itself on the elements of a Code and were prepared to begin negotiating with China. The agreed elements establish a dispute resolution mechanism that first uses the High Council of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (to which China has acceded). Failing that, the dispute settlement mechanisms of international law, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, apply. But Chinese Foreign Minister Yang said China would only negotiate a Code when conditions are "ripe."

The aftermath of the debacle was not pretty. Damage had been done and finger-pointing prevailed. Surin said "the failure to address the South China Sea issue was a lesson for ASEAN" and that it needed to show that it can operate more effectively on the international stage."

Although Yang had denied influencing Cambodia's decision, he subsequently publicly thanked Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for supporting China's "core interests." Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said darkly, "Probably there was a plan behind the scenes against Cambodia."

The South China Sea disputes were supposed to be and could have been an opportunity for China to diplomatically solve problems and build confidence with its neighbors, as well as a chance for ASEAN to demonstrate its ability to work together on security issues. Both opportunities were lost — as was the hope for stabilization of the region. The outcome was also an indication that ASEAN navigation between China and the United States will be fraught with difficulties.

Indeed, the "elephant in the room" was the China-U.S. rivalry. There is now little doubt that the two are engaged in a struggle for the "hearts and minds" of Southeast Asians. However, the U.S. and China did not clash at the ARF as feared — at least in public. Rather, at the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized Sino-American cooperation in "everything from disaster relief to tiger protection."

After the meeting, Xinhua accused the U.S. of "meddling" in the South China Sea disputes. It is true that just before the meeting, the U.S. stated its position on the issues and essentially encouraged ASEAN to stand up to China.

Much to China's chagrin, the U.S. administration also increased its activity behind the scenes pressing regional countries on the issue and trying to influence the content of the Code.

Despite these setbacks and the proliferation of mistrust, it is likely that ASEAN will limp forward to the November meetings with some type of interim modus operandi. There is too much stake not to do so — like ASEAN centrality in the region and its fundamental unity on security issues — and thus its credibility and "political power." However it may have to reconsider its decision-making by consensus in which a single party can essentially veto a proposal. It may also need to reconsider the power embodied in the annual chair. Perhaps more important, it — and its members — will have to be careful not to get caught in between the two big powers.

Natalagawa promptly embarked on an odyssey around ASEAN to try to salvage a compromise statement and the Code. But apparently a delayed "joint communique" was beyond reach. After several days of nonstop negotiations, the ASEAN foreign ministers issued a statement of "six-point" principles on the South China Sea. The statement reaffirmed their commitment to implement the 2002 Declaration of Conduct and to its 2011 Guidelines for doing so, and underscored their effort to reach "an early conclusion" of the Code.

The statement also reiterated their commitment to self-restraint and nonuse of force as well as the peaceful resolution of the disputes according to international law and the Law of the Sea. It also said negotiations on the disputes would be consistent with the the ASEAN Charter. In other words there was nothing new in the declaration. And ASEAN hasn't even formally approached China yet regarding the content of the Code.

There is still a lot of diplomatic work to be done to achieve a binding Code for the South China Sea. Stay tuned for the next act in this fascinating political drama.

Mark J. Valencia is a maritime policy analyst and senior associate at the Nautilus Institute.

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