South China Sea Dispute: China Unchallenged by ASEAN

21 May, 2014    ·   4460

Samundeswari N says that the reference to the SCS in the Summit joint statement was merely ceremonial

The coincidence of the China-Vietnam tussle and the ASEAN Summit of 2014 re-focused discussions on the South China Sea dispute but failed to create a significant impact. The foreign ministers of the ASEAN countries issued a standalone declaration that called for “restraint by all parties involved in the maritime dispute and to avoid resorting to military force.” However, they refrained from naming the contesting parties in the South China Sea dispute.

Why did the ASEAN fail to address the issue publicly? Is the joint statement an indication that the ASEAN is going to take maritime dispute seriously?

Are ASEAN Countries Willing to Publicly Express their Opinions on the SCS?
There have been reports of Southeast Asian countries subtly criticising the ASEAN stance on the South China Sea dispute. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said, “We should stop this gunboat diplomacy.” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak expressed concern about the lack of solidarity within the ASEAN, and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung directly commented on Chinese aggression. Philippine President Benigno Aquino said that the “rule of law is key in fostering a climate of stability.”

Individually, the ASEAN countries want to deal with the issue pragmatically, however, at summit-level discussions, they hold back from expressing their opinions.  The reasons for holding back are be many; chief among them being the fear of not being supported by other ASEAN members and being exposed to the displeasure of the Chinese.

Reluctant or Subservient?
The ASEAN did not openly name the country it claims to have concerns with. When to the ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh was asked about this silence, he replied, “We know which countries are mentioned in the statement.” This statement implies that ASEAN is taking a subtle approach to dealing with China. This is not surprising because even in past joint statements, ASEAN has approached the China issue indirectly.    

There are various factors that prevent the ASEAN from addressing the issue publicly.

Firstly, China presumes the ASEAN to be weak and divided on the issue of settling the South China Sea dispute, which is the correct conclusion. The ASEAN countries are assumed to be divided into two blocks, one falling under China’s shadow and the other resisting it with US support. US President Barrack Obama’s Asia tour has increased the leverage available to countries that have taken on China to resolve the dispute. For instance, the renewal of the US-Philippines military pact has increased the resilience of Philippines to settle the dispute through an international tribunal rather than through a bilateral agreement as suggested by China.

Philippines and Vietnam are the only countries to have pressurised ASEAN to approach an issue that has never been dealt with in ASEAN’s history. Most of the ASEAN countries are neither pro-China nor anti-China; but preferring to stay neutral.  The lack of consensus among the member countries has pushed the issue to the sidelines.

Secondly, the ASEAN countries firmly believe that offending a big power like China will have adverse consequences. Since most of the ASEAN countries are dependent on China in one way or the other, public accusations will only kindle their existing domestic crises that are of more immediate concern than the South China Sea dispute.

Is the ASEAN Joint Statement a Positive Sign?
 Myanmar avoided international criticism through the joint statement that was issued during its turn to host the ASEAN Summit, unlike Cambodia and Indonesia who hosted the Summit in2012 and 2013 respectively. Since Myanmar is closely affiliated to China, it made a vibrant attempt to address the issue without altering the status quo. Analysts have deciphered the joint statement as that of ASEAN straightening its course after the debacle of the two preceding Summits.

However, the South China Sea dispute continues to grow as a concern, as does the inability of the ASEAN member countries to address the issue directly. If firmer action was coupled with the joint statement, the impact would have been more effective. For now, the joint statement appears to be a ceremonial gesture rather than a firm commitment to solve the dispute.