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A moment of truth has arrived for ASEAN, believed to be one of the most successful regional organizations in the world, with the verdict on 12 July by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague – the world’s oldest international tribunal for international resolutions of disputes between nations.
It was the earlier Filipino government of Aquino that unilaterally took the case to the Court, and one does not know as yet how the new president, Rodrigo Duterte, will react to the outcome because of the mixed signal he has sent out on how he will treat the issue. His attitude will undoubtedly be a critical factor in determining how ASEAN decides to react. Whatever way ASEAN responds to the verdict will be a litmus test for the organization – whether it can remain united in the future and can retain its centrality in maintaining of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. It will also throw some light on how ASEAN’s relations with China, as well as with other powers, on this particular conflict will evolve in the future.
Beijing has already moved its full diplomatic and other assets to justify its case on the South China Sea issue and mounted heavy pressure on its ASEAN friends not to criticize its recent activities in island building in the region
China has all along opposed its participation in the proceedings and declared its refusal to accept the verdict, on the ground that the South China issue is a matter of territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation, which are not subject to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and therefore, the tribunal has no jurisdiction to rule on the case and the Philippines’ “unilateral initiation of arbitration” breaches international law.
Anticipating that the tribunal verdict might go against China, Beijing has already moved its full diplomatic and other assets to justify its case on the South China Sea issue and mounted heavy pressure on its ASEAN friends not to criticize its recent activities in island building in the region.
The stunning diplomatic U-turn by Southeast Asian Nations that saw them retract a statement sounding alarm over Beijing’s island building in the South China Sea at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting last month in the Chinese city of Kunming, is attributed to an intense pressure on ASEAN and bullying by China.
At the meeting, Malaysia released a document and described it as a joint statement from the bloc that warned developments in the South China Sea could “undermine peace, security and stability,” and specified “land reclamation” as a source of tension, a clear reference to China’s massive island building activities where it is trying to cement a claim to almost the whole sea.
But within hours, the draft was recalled “for urgent amendments” but no joint statement saw the light of the day after that. This was the second time, the first time in Phnom Penh in 2012 at the end of its summit when the host Cambodia, at the instance of China, scuttled the issuance of an ASEAN joint statement that included a clear mention of the South China Sea conflict.
ASEAN’s policy of engagement of China and its ‘soft’ and accommodative approach towards the South China Sea issue has brought only temporary benefits in terms of only shelving the conflict, but it has not been very effective in managing the latter or restraining it from escalating the conflict level in the SCS. China’s actions in the SCS over the last two decades only prove that it pays lip service to Confidence-Building Measures process at sea, which the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), CSCAP (Conference on Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific), the various ASEAN statements and diplomacy, as well as bilateral agreements with China, have been trying to achieve.
So long China remains uncompromising on the question of sovereignty over the South China Sea; it is also not very sincere on the issue of joint development of resources in the area.
Many Southeast Asians, including government leaders, have come to realize that the way of managing China is not through display of ASEAN’s own weaknesses and accommodation of Beijing’s core interests in South China Sea but only through firm and united stand conveying a message that the ASEAN foreign ministers were able to deliver on 18 March 1995 after China’s occupation of Mischief Reef came into light.
It was only after that statement that China not only agreed to deal multilaterally with ASEAN but also showed quite a bit of flexibility on the issue. China’s Asia strategy is to deal with everyone bilaterally so that its weight can be used to maximize advantage because of the asymmetrical relationship. But by using solidarity as a substitute for military power, ASEAN on that occasion, on the other hand, had forced China to deal with its members as a group. ASEAN has not been able to show the same unity in the subsequent period as conflicting national interests began to divide ASEAN again and again.
As early as 1992, the year after ASEAN made China a dialogue partner, ASEAN issued a declaration of principles on the South China Sea in which the organization-not member countries-urged “all parties concerned” to exercise restraint to create “a positive climate for the eventual resolution of all disputes.”
Ten years later, in 2002, China signed a document called the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with ASEAN as a whole and not only with countries with which it had unresolved territorial disputes. Since then, ASEAN and China have been working on a “Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” but agreement has been elusive. To claim now, after 24 years of dialogue, that ASEAN as a whole is not involved is to be disingenuous, if not worse. Moreover, China knows that the members of ASEAN have agreed that before countries with territorial disputes meet with China on the South China Sea disputes, all 10 member countries will meet first to hammer out a common position. China has always opposed that position and has been successful in dividing ASEAN countries between those who are claimants to the dispute and those who are not.
Indonesia and Singapore, who were earlier neutral, have recently increasingly become “interested parties” in the disputes ant want ASEAN to involve collectively as they know that individually they have little strength but, if they stay united, they can be a formidable force.
Chinese would prefer individual nations, claimant states, to settle their claims bilaterally … but for ASEAN and other countries there is no ignoring that fact that the South China Sea is an international waterway
China has been insisting that it will engage in bilateral talks with countries involved in the conflict, but the reality in the ground demands that only if ASEAN’s collective voice is heard to work towards practical solutions can real stability and peace be achieved in the region. And that requires some real efforts by all member countries to work out a common position on the issue to stand against any undue pressure from Beijing. Without a collective position on the most crucial challenge it has faced in its existence for half a century, the future of ASEAN as a viable, dynamic and united entity may be thrown into doubt?
Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said recently that there is a firm basis for ASEAN helping to resolve disputes involving several of its member states and China in the South China Sea. He was quoted as saying: “The Chinese would prefer individual nations, claimant states, to settle their claims bilaterally … but for ASEAN and other countries there is no ignoring that fact that the South China Sea is an international waterway.” He noted further that ASEAN and China in 2002 signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DoC) in the South China Sea. That document, which details how to approach problems in the South China Sea, demonstrates that ASEAN is “already involved,” he said.
ASEAN will have its 49th foreign ministers’ meeting in Vientiane in Laos, the current chair, starting July 21 and the tribunal verdict will obviously come into the agenda. Time has come for the organization to show that its collective voice on a critical issue can make a difference.
The writer is Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies, Ex-JNU professor & noted expert on SE Asian politics