South China Sea disputes: why ASEAN must unite

Author: Aileen S. P. Baviera, University of the Philippines

After teetering on the edge all through the month, the ASEAN Humpty Dumpty abruptly fell off its wall on 13 July and broke into pieces. The grouping failed to issue a joint communiqué following the meeting in Phnom Penh due to differences on how to reflect discussions on the South China Sea disputes.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa had to fly to ASEAN capitals to try to put Humpty together again by issuing a ‘common position’. However, not only Indonesia but everyone in ASEAN — as well as China and the US — (and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men) would do well to come and help seal the cracks.

For the last 45 years ASEAN has issued a joint communiqué at the end of each of its meetings. There has always been bilateral friction between member states, but this friction is normally smoothed over in meetings. Member states generally agree that ASEAN is more than the sum of its parts, and the joint statement at the end of each meeting reaffirms that the organisation is more important than any single member. Even if it reflects only the lowest common denominator, the communiqué is still a symbolic affirmation of shared strategic interests.

So there is more at stake in recent events than the statement itself. A few sentences acknowledging the recent tensions between Vietnam and the Philippines and China could have sufficed. Thus it is confounding that the chair, Cambodia, was unable to forge even a minimalist consensus, though some speculate that there were promises made to a certain non-member of the ASEAN family — China.

It should come as no surprise that Indonesia’s Natalegawa was doing the troubleshooting after the Phnom Penh summit. Though technically this is the responsibility of the ASEAN Secretary General, Thailand’s Surin Pitsuwan, Thailand and Cambodia’s relations over the Preah Vihear temple remain frayed, so Indonesia would find it easier to approach Cambodia.

By breaking with the established practice of issuing a communiqué, ASEAN sends a message that some members do not recognise the ongoing existence of shared strategic interests. Then, it is right to ask, what is the purpose of ASEAN, and what is the purpose of their being an ASEAN?

ASEAN members do share a significant strategic interest: Southeast Asia’s small and medium powers need to collectively preserve their autonomy against any great power that would dominate the region. For decades this has been ASEAN’s reason for being, and explains why Cambodia’s perceived weakness in the face of Chinese pressure and enticements is so grave. By succumbing to China, Cambodia acts against ASEAN’s most important function.

On the other hand, the Philippines is perceived to be excessively and unabashedly enthusiastic over the prospect of US intervention in the resolution of territorial disputes. US intervention may serve the Philippines’ national interest, but it unnerves many in ASEAN — even those who quietly support a robust US presence.

After all, both the US and China have the potential to dominate Southeast Asia. Moreover, China’s assertiveness is driven by the fear that the US ‘Asian pivot’ is directed against China and that ASEAN will become Washington’s co-conspirator.

If ASEAN cannot speak with one voice, it will struggle to remain relevant. The failure in Phnom Penh not only undermines ASEAN’s ‘centrality’; it calls into question ASEAN’s ability to negotiate with other countries as a collective actor. Disunity couldn’t come at a worse time than when ASEAN is preparing to negotiate with China on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. This coincides with China’s rapid modernisation of its military and growing assertiveness.

Code of conduct negotiations will be a critical opportunity for ASEAN to pursue conflict prevention measures with China. Such measures might include a moratorium on further military expansion, military exclusion zones around disputed land features, agreements on how to deal with fishing activities in areas where there exist overlapping claims, and hotlines between leaders. The outcome of these negotiations could spell the difference between peace and armed conflict in the South China Sea.

ASEAN’s most urgent task is to ensure the effectiveness of any new code — resolving ownership issues is a lesser priority at the moment. If ASEAN members who do not have claims in the South China Sea feel burdened by the negotiations, they might consider abstaining. The claimants (the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei) and other interested stakeholders (such as Indonesia and Singapore) should consider establishing a separate framework for code of conduct negotiations with China, one preferably still under ASEAN auspices.

ASEAN fancies itself the foundation of cooperative security architecture in Asia. At the moment, though, that foundation looks decidedly shaky. If ASEAN cannot make a solid show of unity before discussions on a code of conduct begin, it throws away a major opportunity to develop this architecture. If this happens, ASEAN could end up abdicating responsibility for managing its own regional problems to big external powers.

Aileen S. P. Baviera is Professor at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines.