Ideally, ASEAN should mediate disputes between its members and China over the South China Sea. The grouping not only failed in this but is not even providing moral support to its member states. Its silence on the historic Hague ruling rejecting China’s claims over the sea at a recent meeting in Laos only proves this. As China pressures ASEAN members like Cambodia to veto decisions which could affect its national interests, the group will have to adopt alternative decision-making mechanisms in the politico-security realm or risk losing its voice in the Asian strategic table.
For almost four decades, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has stood as an exemplary model of regional integration in the developing world. It facilitated the transformation of a chaotic, rancorous and insecure post-colonial region into a stable, prosperous and increasingly self-confident one.
No wonder then, from West to South and Northeast Asia, peace-seeking nations have enviously sought to emulate Southeast Asia’s commendable efforts at creating a ‘security community’, where member states have largely abandoned the use or threat of force to settle intra-regional disputes.
While South Asian countries, under the banner of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), are yet to consolidate their skeletal regional economic integration, West and Northeast Asia are still caught in a game-of-thrones-like security dilemma.
In the Middle East’s balkanized security architecture, diversity continues to breed conflict. Wealthy Arab monarchies have coalesced under the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), while the Arab League tenuously pays lip service to Nasserite pan-Arabism with little actual accomplishments on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Turks, Persians, and Israelis have had to pursue a separate path, with some joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Turkey) while others like Iran are contemplating membership in the Sino-Russia-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Israel, in turn, has largely relied on its ‘special relationship’ with America, with no institutionalized dialogue with neighboring states.
In contrast, the ASEAN has brought together a highly diverse collection of countries, ranging from communist Vietnam to democratic Indonesia and absolute monarchy of Brunei. It also counts among its members the world’s richest (Singapore) and poorest (Myanmar) nations.
The ASEAN is also evolving from a Free Trade Area into a Common Market, combining both elements of a Customs Union as well as European Union-like cross-border labor mobility. Yet, these undeniable gains are in jeopardy.
Adaptation and innovation is key to sustained regional integration, but the ASEAN has desperately struggled to forge internal coherence and any measure of geopolitical relevance when it comes to the 21st century’s greatest potential flashpoint, the South China Sea.
During the latest ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Laos, regional states even failed to mention the Philippines’ landmark legal victory against China, with some member states expressing greater affinity with Beijing rather than some of their besieged regional peers. The ASEAN will either have to get its act together, or wither into utter strategic impertinence.
A lonely journey
The Philippines’ arbitration case was both born out of the ASEAN’s fecklessness as well as China’s maritime assertiveness. In 2012, Manila witnessed in sheer horror China’s de facto occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, which lies just above 100 nautical miles from Philippine shores but more than 600 nautical miles off the nearest (naturally-formed) Chinese coastline.
That same year, the ASEAN, under the chairmanship of Cambodia, couldn’t even agree to mention the South China Sea disputes in their regional pronouncements. For the first time in its history, ASEAN foreign ministers couldn’t even issue a joint communiqué.
Bereft of regional support, and facing domestic pressure, Philippine President Benigno Aquino realized that legal warfare was perhaps the only viable option to pursue. His country lacked any independent military capability, while America equivocated on its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.
Over the next four years, the Philippines built up a historic legal case against China, which culminated in an almost ‘clean sweep’ victory. Yet, throughout this period, it hardly received any assistance or even an explicit statement of diplomatic support from the ASEAN. Vietnam, which is said to have encouraged the Philippines to adopt a legal offensive, sat back and refused to join along.
In the end, however, the Philippines not only overcame jurisdictional hurdles – when the court rejected China’s self-exemption arguments — but also managed to win a favorable verdict on almost all of its arguments against China.
By skillfully packaging its arguments as a matter of maritime entitlements and sovereign rights, the Philippines eschewed territorial claim arguments, which transcend the UNCLOS’ mandate.
Contrary to false information spread by certain circles, the verdict has clear legal implications not only for the Philippines and China, but also for the ASEAN and beyond.
First of all, the arbitration body, which oversaw the compulsory arbitration case, was constituted (in accordance to Art. 287, Annex VII) under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea’ (UNCLOS). Its verdict (in accordance to Art. 296 and Art. 11, Annex VII) is final and binding.
As responsible members of the international community, ASEAN members are expected to respect the verdict and call for compliance by parties concerned.
Moreover, the arbitral tribunal flatly rejected China’s “historic rights” claim over almost the entire South China Sea, while censuring Beijing’s massive island-building activities in the Spratlys. It also rejected China’s claim that there are naturally formed islands in the area.
These have clear implications for other ASEAN littoral states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, which have been at the receiving end of increasingly assertive Chinese fishing activities and para-military patrols across the area.
Yet, recent statements by the ASEAN and its key member countries completely omitted any mention of a landmark ruling by a legal body formed under the United Nations vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes. Ideally, there was no need for the Philippines to file the arbitration case, provided the ASEAN effectively mediated the disputes between its members and China.
Having failed to accomplish that basic task, the ASEAN is now failing to even provide moral support to its member states facing off a giant adversary well within their 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
It has been 14 years since the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, but the ASEAN has not only fallen way short of ensuring respect for the declaration, but also failed to craft a rudimentary blue print of a Code of Conduct among disputing parties.
Meanwhile, China has been transforming facts on the ground on a daily basis.
For four decades, the regional body has relied on a consensus-and-consultation-based decision-making procedure, which facilitated confidence-building and trust among member states. But its emphasis on unanimity has undermined regional decision-making on major geopolitical concerns, since it misguidedly gives every single member a de facto veto power.
As a result, external powers like China have tried to coax and cajole highly dependent ASEAN countries to toe their line.
As eminent Singaporean diplomat Barry Desker rightfully laments, “As China exerts its influence on ASEAN members to prevent any decisions which could affect its preference for bilateral negotiations, it will be increasingly difficult to reach an ASEAN consensus.”
The ASEAN will either have to adopt alternative decision-making mechanisms in the politico-security realm — whether it is the “ASEAN Minus X” formula or Qualified Majority (QM) voting — or risk losing its already-marginal voice in the Asian strategic table.
Otherwise, individual ASEAN members will either consider capitulation (to China) or invite external powers like America and Japan to join the fray, setting the stage for great power conflict.
What is at stake here is not only a bunch of rocks and atolls in the high seas, but also decades of peace and prosperity in Asia.
Richard Javad Heydarian teaches political science at De La Salle University, and formerly served a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). The Manila Bulletin, a leading national daily, has described him as one of the Philippines’ “foremost foreign policy and economic analysts.”