Visible cracks in Asean's unity

Visible cracks in Asean's unity

The 49th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM-49) that opened in Vientiane, Laos’s capital, on July 24, 2016, with the attendance of 10 members of Asean and the bloc’s General Secretary Le Luong Minh failed to take unified stance after hours of negotiations on the South China Sea territorial dispute because of the divisions between the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Differences over the wording of a paragraph on the South China Sea could not be narrowed. This was the first major meeting after the UN-appointed arbitration court in The Hague rejected China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea resources. 
A number of disputed islands, including the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, are located in the South China Sea. Beijing makes territorial claims to the Spratly Islands, known as the Nansha Islands in China, believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves. The Chinese claims run counter to those made by the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.  

Being the host, Laos’ PM Thongloun Sisoulith underlined the importance of the AMM-49 and its related meetings, which includes discussions on how to implement the Asean Vision 2025 and strengthen cooperation with its outside partners.

Asean as a group has seen cracks that have affected its cohesiveness and big power play has come into the functioning of the organisation. Its inability to build consensus on certain critical issues is a worrying point in the organisation’s effectiveness. That reputation has now come under severe assault. 

But why did the Asean leaders fail to reach a consensus over the South China Sea dispute? The issue was deadlocked because of Cambodia’s consideration of its own national interests. It did not want China to be criticised, for that would put the huge Chinese economic involvement in the country in jeopardy.

The loyalty to the big ‘C’ by a single Asean member country has now put pressure on the body’s cherished unity, giving China an upper hand. Cambodia’s diplomatic offensive as well as use of money power have worked in China’s favour, thereby denting Asean’s unity, cohesion, relevance and reputation.

Traditionally, the foreign ministers, whenever they meet, issue a joint communiqué but this time no such statement was issued as the question of including a reference to the South China Sea or not remained a sticking point. Asean’s cardinal principle is decision by consensus, which means any member of the grouping can veto a proposal, and this time it was Cambodia.

China’s allies

Cambodia has emerged as China’s close ally. Even in 2012, Cambodia blocked a reference to the dispute when then ministers failed to issue a statement for the first time in the bloc’s history. Laos, another ally of China, was the host this time and while it was careful not to take sides, it did endorse Cambodia’s veto.

For these two Sino-Indian states, their relations with China are more important than their membership with the Asean. These two nations would not hesitate to damage the centrality of the Asean grouping if it suits their interests.

The US has huge strategic interests in the region and it beli-eves that maintaining peace and stability in the region is in the interest of all. When China reacted to the tribunal’s ruling, the US had to step in to deescalate tensions. Washington continues to advocate freedom of navigation and supports unimpeded lawful commerce and urges Beijing to exercise restraint and respect the rights of others.

Indeed, the South China Sea has been one of the top political and security issues in the region being extensively discussed whenever there are multilateral meetings. Even as the Asean members are struggling to hammer out a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea, Beijing continues to expand its footprint there. 

As it transpires, unless China backs down and changes course, no effort by the Asean claimant countries – either independently or collectively – would be enough to resolve the South China Sea dispute that is acceptable to all. It seems difficult that the competing narratives of the opposing parties can find a common viewpoint.

The South China Sea issue is likely to be more volatile at a time when Asean’s centrality has come under assault and China’s belligerence continues to increase. It seems unlikely that
despite obtaining a favourable ruling from the arbitration tribunal, the Philippines would be able to stop Chinese actions and violation of its sovereign rights, including fishing rights at the Scarborough Shoal.

(The writer is ICCR Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan)
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