At the end of their gathering in Phnom Penh on 13 July, the silence was deafening. The proximate cause was their inability to reach a consensus on whether the statement should mention Scarborough Shoal, the site of a that began in April between China and the Philippines, whose governments both claim that land feature in the South China Sea. The Philippines wanted to include such a reference. Cambodia objected. Neither gave in. The ‘ASEAN way’ of consensus failed.
The underlying cause of the breakdown deeply implicates Beijing and its effort to defend its claim to possess exclusive sovereign rights over nearly the entire South China Sea. This claim denies the overlapping rights of sovereignty that four ASEAN states — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — assert.
In Beijing’s view, ASEAN has no business trying to resolve the disputes over the South China Sea, which can only be settled bilaterally between China and each of the four Southeast Asian claimants. In this context, by refusing to issue a communiqué, Cambodia, the 2012 ASEAN chair, appears to have done what China would have wanted it to do.
So, how badly will the rift in Phnom Penh damage ASEAN’s ability to sponsor a binding code governing state behaviour in the South China Sea?
In 2002, China and the ASEAN states signed a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Some ASEAN leaders hoped to commemorate the document’s 10th anniversary this year by drafting, among themselves, a binding code of conduct. The plan was to finish the task in time for the ASEAN ministers to announce the draft at their meeting in Phnom Penh.
The good news is that the draft code exists, although its contents have not been announced. But the bad news is that a communiqué noting what the ministers accomplished would likely have mentioned their success in preparing a draft code and described it as an important step forward. Without this recognition, the draft code could languish in limbo without a clear status and vulnerable to being dismissed as a mere wish list. Intentionally or not, when Hun Sen cancelled the communiqué, he prevented ASEAN from publicly and prominently validating the draft as the group’s official basis for negotiation.
Discussions between ASEAN and China on the draft code are scheduled for September. The draft is an ASEAN product, so those talks will be multilateral in character. If China takes part, it will have to leave its bilaterallist preferences at the door. ASEAN’s plan is to join China in signing a final text at the next round of ASEAN-related summits this November.
ASEAN’s draft is unlikely to stay hidden for long. If it does remain secret, no one but the governments directly involved will be able to identify China as the cause of any changes, including concessions made to satisfy Beijing. But if the draft is circulated in its current form and China successfully makes changes, these deviations from the original will eventually become public knowledge. ASEAN’s diplomats will risk being accused of giving in to the dragon.
Beijing feels entitled to the South China Sea, and that sense of entitlement limits its ability to project soft power.
A case in point is Beijing’s repeated characterisation of its claim to the South China Sea as ‘indisputable’. Is there no one in the foreign ministry who recognises how laughable this description is? Four ASEAN states are disputing it, not to mention its disapproval by others.
Manila has suggested separating those parts of the South China Sea that are ‘disputed’ from those that are not. Perhaps Beijing thinks that in describing its claim as ‘indisputable’, it is simply protecting its position. But in the realm of soft power, where words matter, China’s insistence on indisputability undermines its case.
The deadlock in Phnom Penh may delay the creation of a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
But it may also speed up the unwillingness of at least some ASEAN states to kowtow to their giant neighbour, while strengthening their incentive to cooperate prudently with outsiders, including the United States, for the sake of their own national and regional independence. In the meantime, it behoves the four Southeast Asian claimants to make sure that they too, being very much part of the problem, are part of its solution.
Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University.
This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the Asia Times Online.