Monday, November 23, 2015

South China Sea is still Asean's Achilles heel - The continuing failure to reach consensus on Beijing's territorial seizures represents weakness, not flexibility

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), meeting in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend, restated their intention to build a genuine sense of community in the region, but there is general acknowledgement that their major challenge is to resolve the dispute over territorial rights in the South China Sea.

The group's statement at the end of its 27th summit focused on becoming a community and deepening regional integration over the next 10 years. That is all well and good, but now comes the first serious test of their political unity. The haggling over islands and atolls in the South China Sea and the means of dealing with Beijing's bold claim to them has demonstrated that there is no true sense of community because there is no consensus.

In the days before this summit, the Asean defence ministers repeated the failure of their counterparts in the foreign ministries several years ago to establish a united stand on the matter. The aim was to issue a statement representing a consensus. It proved impossible.

The Philippines and Vietnam, which have the biggest stakes in the disputed islands and shoals, have long been at loggerheads with China, which insists it holds sovereignty throughout that body of water. Beijing's overt moves to develop the islets - and apparently even adding an artificial island - have not only inflamed tensions in Southeast Asia but also drawn the hostile attention of the United States and, by extension, the reproachful eye of Russia.

There are fishing rights to be considered, and it could well be that some of the islands rest on significant reserves of oil, but for now the dispute remains a matter of territorial integrity, of flexing political muscle, and of saving face. These factors add up to a poor rationale for going to war, but that possibility has not been discounted.

America's entry into the dispute has gravely complicated matters, its "demand" for freedom of navigation as per the status quo a direct outcropping of its pledge to "pivot" towards Asia in terms of global trade, development and security. Just days before the Asean summit, Washington upped the ante by announcing that maritime-security assistance to Southeast Asia, notably the Philippines, stood at a record $119 million this year. Most of that money is aimed at building a military training-and-logistics base. Beijing could hardly have accepted the news coolly.

Pinned between the world's two superpowers - both of which have tremendous influence here - Asean has attempted and failed to present a unified front. It has been unable to define a "common interest" that could supersede individual national interests. While Manila and Hanoi would have the group denounce China, their neighbouring states prefer to maintain a delicate balancing act with the superpowers.

The official strategy of Asean is to deal with Beijing on a collective basis, but the best it has managed so far is the signing of a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, which called for peaceful resolution to disputes, without naming any countries in particular. Beijing has acknowledged the document - and carried on with its island-building programme.

More than a year ago Asean and China agreed to a legally binding code of conduct, but there has been no agreement to date on the specifics. An Asean-China conference took place as part of the summit in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, and the importance of these documents was again recognised, yet nothing more was done.

Asean's grand ambition is to be a trading bloc with global clout. Its reluctance to take a unified stance on the South China Sea might appease its single largest trading partner, but it will also be seen as a sign of weakness in Beijing and everywhere else in the world - not of flexibility, and certainly not pragmatism. The Nation, Bangkok


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