ASEAN Summit Breaks Down Over South China Sea Disputes

Posted on July 13, 2012


Officials gathered for group photo during the Asean gala dinner in Phnom Penh. The ministerial summit broke down Thursday amid tense disagreements over how to address territorial claims in the South China Sea.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia—Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the outcome of the latest Asean regional summit in Phnom Penh was “very disappointing,” as ministers failed even to agree on a concluding joint statement to summarize the gathering’s events.

The ministerial summit broke down on Thursday amid tense disagreements over how to address territorial claims in the South China Sea. Although participants had hoped to make headway on a binding code of conduct to govern the way China and Southeast Asian nations settle their disputes in the resource-rich waters, talks foundered after China insisted the forum wasn’t the appropriate place to discuss the matter.

Southeast Asian nations argued over how hard to press the Chinese, with countries such as Cambodia resisting any steps that would embarrass China and the Philippines – which have competing maritime territorial claims – pushing to take a harder line, according to people familiar with the talks.

Tempers grew so hot that the 10 Asean member nations weren’t able to agree on language for a concluding communiqué, which is typically issued at the end of such summits and used as final records of the events. The failure to achieve a record of decisions at the summit means that Asean won’t be able to proceed on some of the action points it agreed to, such as proceeding with a joint institute for peace and reconciliation to be located in Jakarta, Mr. Surin said.

Such a failure is “unprecedented” in the bloc’s 45-year history, Mr. Surin said. “We’ll need time to recover,” he added. “I think what it means is that Asean will need to learn how to consolidate and coordinate positions if it wants to take on the global community,” he said.

The diplomatic breakdown is a troubling sign for a bloc that is pursuing plans to create a regional economic community by 2015, featuring fewer barriers to trade, streamlined customs procedures, freer flows of labor and closer integration of regional financial markets. The goal is to turn Southeast Asia – a region with widely different political systems and a history of in-fighting – into a more-integrated bloc of 600 million consumers whose combined size gives it greater economic and geopolitical clout on the world stage. Its leaders are currently working to implement those initiatives.

Mr. Surin said those efforts, at least, remain in train despite the troubles in Phnom Penh. Since this week’s meetings revolved around foreign ministers, “it won’t affect the economic track,” he said.

Even so, the breakdown was still seen as a setback for the group as it tries to gain more respect in the international community.

“I think it’s a major embarrassment for the organization,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

It may also mark a setback for the U.S.’s agenda in the region, which includes efforts to bolster Asean so that it can more effectively resist China’s expanding influence in the region. The U.S. has argued repeatedly that China should deal with Asean as a unified bloc in negotiating disputes in the South China Sea, which carries around half of the world’s total trade and is claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, with frictions increasing over the past year.

China has resisted, saying it is willing to negotiate but would prefer to deal on a bilateral basis with countries with claims in the sea. Critics of that approach, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, say it reduces the leverage of smaller nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam while encouraging divisions within Southeast Asia to deepen—more or less what happened Thursday.

Speaking late Thursday night in Phnom Penh, Mrs. Clinton described the day’s meetings as “intense” but cast them in a positive light. At least Asean countries are now getting their disagreements out into the open, she said, after what analysts say have been years of avoiding conflict on issues that divide the bloc.

“I think it is a sign of Asean’s maturity that they are wrestling with some very hard issues here,” Mrs. Clinton said in a briefing late Thursday. “They’re not ducking them.”

Looking ahead, Mr. Surin said he thought a code of conduct was needed to ensure the issue of the South China Sea doesn’t keep splitting the region.

“We will recoup, they will reflect on these things,” Mr. Surin said. “And I am sure they will regain their composure.”

Patrick Barta

Tiny island in South China Sea is stirring up tensions

BEIJING – A tiny island of mostly fishermen in the South China Sea has emerged as the symbol of tensions between China and its smaller neighbors sparring over 1 million square miles of maritime riches.

Sansha city is 5 square miles of sparsely populated land far from the coast of China. But its city limits run an astonishing distance — hundreds of miles over atolls, fishing grounds and energy deposits, some of which are much closer to the Philippines and Vietnam than the People’s Republic of China.

That overreach is at the heart of an annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where nations are appealing to the United States to get China to curb its territorial claims.

“None of us can fail to be concerned by the increase in tensions, the uptick in confrontational rhetoric and disagreements over resource exploitation,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the meeting Thursday.

Clinton said the United States has an interest in freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea, but “we do not take sides in disputes about territorial or maritime boundaries.”

That position may not be what other Asian nations want to hear.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all claim parts of the South China Sea, especially those close to their shores. Japan, though not a full member of ASEAN, is also demanding China keep away from what it says is its territory.

In June, China withdrew its boats from a lagoon off Scarborough Shoal, about 135 miles from the Philippines, after a confrontation with the Philippines Navy. On Wednesday, Japan demanded China remove three Chinese patrol boats spotted in Japanese territorial waters off the coast of the Senkaku islands

ASEAN’s 10 members would like to have talks to solve the matter, but China, which is not a member, has shown little interest. Even members of ASEAN cannot agree over how to proceed.

“More importantly than simply responding to the past is to move forward to ensure that these kinds of events no longer recur,” said Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, in a statement at the opening of the ASEAN meeting.

The South China Sea is a waterway in which as much as a third of the world trade passes and its resources have yet to be fully explored. Aside from an abundance of fishing grounds, preliminary tests indicate it may hold huge deposits of oil and natural gas coveted by an energy-hungry China.

China only moved to elevate the status of Sansha to prefecture-level of mainland Hainan province on June 21, handing with it the alleged authority over much of the South China Sea. China experts say the action was significant.

“Sansha will help China strengthen its claims over the South China Sea,” Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, said recently.

China has also yet to retreat from a map it submitted to the United Nations in which it drew a line that encompasses the sea for China, and Beijing is busy reinforcing Sansha’s status.

Its main island now features in China’s national weather forecast. A military command is being set up, and new buildings underway include a detention center for foreign fisherman caught trespassing in Chinese waters, reported the Global Times newspaper.

The propagandists are en route too: a new archive office will become a base for patriotic and defense education, said Xinhua, the state news agency.

Liu Feng, a researcher at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, says the attempt by its ASEAN neighbors to establish a code of conduct in the sea can help manage disputes but not settle them. China prefers to deal with the issue one-on-one with individual nations, but “the USA is stirring up trouble, pushing China’s neighbors.”

Vietnam and the Philippines have reacted angrily to the creation of Sansha city and China’s announcement in June that it is opening up areas for offshore oil and gas exploration close to Vietnam. Both moves represent normal administrative and business behavior, Liu said.

“China is not more aggressive than before,” he said. “I prefer to say it’s more active.”

Ian Storey, a regional expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says no side is blameless is the confrontations taking place in the sea. But the announcement by China National Offshore Oil Corp. “is quite disturbing,” he said.

The area China intends to drill for oil and gas is within Vietnam’s internationally recognized 200-mile exclusive economic zone, waters that all coastal nations claim in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China abides by its dashed-line map that gives it “historic” sovereignty over 80% of the South China Sea.

“If China gets away with its interpretation, it will help fashion the law in China’s interest,” Storey says.

The Associated Press

The South China Sea: From Bad to Worse

A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington during routine operations in the South China Sea last week.

TOKYO – Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are about to get a whole lot worse — and at the worst possible time.

Whether the U.S. can avoid being dragged into a shooting match will depend on how far Beijing and its unruly mix of military, maritime and natural resources agencies choose to push their claims. And whether China’s increasingly frustrated neighbors decide to push back.

Last week’s regional security talks in Cambodia were a step in the wrong direction. China refused to look at a written code of conduct being drafted to govern navigation, resources and related issues in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways. It also blocked discussion – let alone resolution — of the conflicting territorial claims in the region.

China claims exclusive rights to virtually all of the South China Sea, including its vast reserves of oil, gas and ocean resources; four other countries and Taiwan claim large parts of the region, as well. The disputes have led to increasingly tense standoffs between China and its neighbors.

The weeklong security talks, hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), dissolved amid charges of Chinese bullying, without even a customary closing statement. China made its point, but it may be a short-lived victory, says Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based maritime policy analyst and senior associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in San Francisco.

“What China is saying is, ‘We have this historic claim to the South China Sea and we own everything within it – islands, reefs, submerged areas, resources, you name it. That’s the way it is, and we’re not even going to talk to you about it.’ But they’ve painted themselves into a corner now, and that’s very dangerous for everybody,” says Valencia.

So far, the U.S. has stayed out of the territorial disputes. That’s wise. The U.S. cannot referee the welter of legal, historical and emotional arguments that accompany each dispute (all or parts of the Spratly Islands, for example, are claimed not only by China, but also by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, with evidence and documentation of varying degrees of credibility and relevance, dating back hundreds of years in some cases).

The primary U.S. interest in the region is in ensuring freedom of navigation. Half the world’s commercial shipping passes through the South China Sea — $5 trillion a year — and U.S. warships regularly transit the region on their way to and from the Persian Gulf, Southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean.

China has promised not to interfere with any ships passing through region. But China has also signaled that it may require prior notice, and that military exercises and surveillance activities by foreign ships and planes may not be permissible. Those are hot-button issues for the U.S., which insists that under international law, nations cannot restrict activity other than economic development within most of their their 200-mile limits – assuming that those claims are internationally recognized to begin with.

An early test could be shaping up with Vietnam. In June, China issued an invitation for foreign companies to explore for oil in a region where Vietnam has already awarded exclusive contracts to U.S., Russian and Indian oil firms. The region is within Vietnam’s standard 200-mile exclusive economic zone. China’s move is likely in retaliation for a law enacted by Vietnam’s parliament earlier in the month that asserts sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands, which of course, China says it owns.

There’s little love lost between the two countries, which fought a short but bloody border war in 1979. Last year, a Chinese fishing ship and government fishery patrol boats cut the cables of a Vietnamese exploration vessel in an area claimed by both countries.

Valencia says he won’t be surprised if the latest dispute results in bloodshed.

“I don’t think it will be war, per se. But Vietnam has shown that it’s not afraid of China, so I can see them sending out their navy, and I can see China shooting back at them,” says Valencia.

A far more dangerous confrontation could be shaping up outside the South China Sea, with an even older and better-armed rival.

On the same day that Japan’s foreign minister was due to meet with his Chinese counterpart at the ASEAN security talks last week, three Chinese maritime patrol ships entered Japanese waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands.

The two governments have been sparring over the islands – which China calls Diaoyu – since 2010, when Japan seized a Chinese fishing vessel that it says rammed a Japanese patrol ship in territorial waters near the islands; the ship and crew were released only after intense economic and political pressure from China.

Japan Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba initially said he wasn’t sure whether the intrusion last week “just happened, or was timed to coincide with the bilateral meeting.” But all doubt seemed to disappear when another Chinese patrol boat entered Japanese waters the very next day. Tokyo summoned the Chinese ambassador and Genba complained again to Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who responded by repeating China’s claim to the islands, located in the East China Sea near Taiwan, were “inherently” Chinese.

Although Tokyo has been publicly trying to tamp down the dispute, it’s clear that patience is wearing thin.

Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime security specialist with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a leading Tokyo think tank, said at a forum in Washington DC in late June that it is time for Japan’s naval forces to begin actively tracking Chinese submarines in the South China Sea, and to be prepared to intervene militarily.

“If an armed conflict results between the South China Sea claimants – for example, China and the Philippines, or China and Vietnam – we have to protect our ships in the South China Sea. And what I am proposing to the government is that if anything happens in the South China Sea, we have to send our self-defense forces to the vicinity of the conflict area to protect Japanese ships,” said Kotani, who is not affiliated with the government but who is believed to reflect government views.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force is designed largely for anti-submarines and anti-mine warfare and generally operates in home waters and the Western Pacific. Venturing into the South China Sea could be seen as a provocative move not only by China, but by some of the regions smaller powers, which still view Japan with suspicion. Japan’s constitution currently forbids military action except in self-defense.

The South China Sea already is heavily militarized and is certain to become more so as the “re-balancing” of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific gains traction. The U.S. Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan, routinely operates there. Three U.S. littoral combat ships are scheduled to begin operating from Singapore next spring. Japan is supplying the Philippines with 10 patrol boats. China has completed construction of a major naval base at Yalong, on the southernmost tip of Hainan Island, which can hold nuclear-powered ballistic missile and attack submarines and large surface warships, including aircraft carriers.

Although the U.S. does not have a security treaty with Vietnam, it does with mutual defense pacts with other nations that have disputes with China. U.S. officials said earlier this month that a Chinese attack directed at the Senkaku Islands would fall under the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, which requires the U.S. to come to the aid of Japan. The U.S. has a similar pact with the Philippines, which was involved in a months-long standoff with China earlier this year as the Scarborough Shoal, a collection reefs in the South China Sea.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report that the South China Sea has potential oil reserves as high as 213 billion barrels, larger than then Saudi Arabia.

In addition to the People’s Liberation Army Navy, at least four other government agencies or ministries operate patrol craft or have a degree of authority over maritime-related issues. At a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington DC, one Chinese participant stated that even if a procedure were developed to resolve the territorial disputes, it is not clear which agency within the Chinese government would have the authority to settle the issue.

And that’s how you go from bad to worse.


The South China Cede

China is picking fights with its neighbors again. In June it was with the Philippines over a remote shoal near the island of Luzon. Then it announced it was sending “combat-ready patrols” through disputed waters. More recently it has been encroaching in Japanese waters. It’s part of Beijing’s assert-and-divide approach to claiming the South China Sea for itself. Yet so far the neighbors aren’t doing enough to stop Beijing’s bullying.

That’s the news coming out of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meeting this week in Cambodia, also attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At issue is the new “code of conduct” for the South China Sea. Asean ministers had hoped to agree on a proposed text at their summit in Phnom Penh as a prelude to negotiating with Beijing in coming months. But for now it’s uncertain they’ll succeed, even if it’s increasingly clear any text they settle on will fall short.

At best, such a code would lay out clear mechanisms for reducing tensions as governments continue to haggle on their overlapping territorial claims. It would clearly state which activities are permissible in which areas until the disputes are resolved. And it would include enforcement mechanisms to sanction violators.

But that is not the kind of deal Asean leaders are contemplating. Other than extending a decade-old agreement prohibiting settlement on disputed areas, which all parties have so far observed, the new document is unlikely to specify which of the many other possible activities involving the islands are allowed, and which ones are forbidden. And it will probably be weak on enforcement.

The net result will be a temptation for Beijing to push the envelope with respect to actions such as sending tourist boats to disputed waters. The lack of peaceful enforcement provisions could encourage dangerous maritime confrontations.

A legal document of any sort, of course, is only as binding as the sincerity of the signatories and the strength of the enforcement mechanisms. Absent a firm commitment from China to act like a responsible power, there’s only so much any code of conduct could accomplish.

So the central problem remains Beijing’s recklessness in its approach to the South China Sea and other territorial disputes. Beijing refuses to state definitively what it believes its legitimate claims to be, preferring to leave everyone guessing about how far it ultimately intends to try to expand its reach.

Meanwhile, Beijing countenances periodic provocations in disputed waters throughout the region—most recently on Wednesday, when a Chinese patrol boat entered waters around the deserted Senkaku islets that have been claimed by Japan for over a century. That was just before the two countries’ foreign ministers were due to meet in Phnom Penh.

The surest way to press Beijing to negotiate a reasonable settlement on the underlying issues is for Asean to present a united front on such questions as a procedural code of conduct. Mrs. Clinton yesterday again called for such a multilateral approach, despite Beijing’s preference for bilateral talks in which it can try to overwhelm or bully its smaller neighbors one by one.

It’s worrying, then, that Asean can’t seem to find a common voice on this issue. In the run up to this week’s summit, Vietnam and the Philippines had pushed for a much more strongly worded code of conduct that would have required China to start clarifying the extent of its claims. It appears Cambodia and other members that don’t have South China Sea claims of their own are balking, insisting on a much watered-down draft so as not to antagonize China.

Southeast Asian governments without a dog in this territorial fight might think this is a reasonable position. It’s not. Asean has proved modestly successful at bolstering economic ties among its members. Now it purports to aspire to much more, including still closer economic and security integration. A failure to take a firm stand on questions involving the sovereign territory of its members undermines that goal, discredits the organization, and emboldens Beijing.


Sea Dispute Upends Asian Summit

China’s efforts to assert its claims to the disputed South China Sea got a boost as regional talks to resolve the issue broke down despite U.S. support, even as Beijing made fresh moves that underscore its increasing presence in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, third left in front row, poses with other ministers for a group photo during the Asean gala dinner in Phnom Penh on Thursday.

A summit of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, ended Friday amid tense disagreements over how to address territorial claims in the sea, which is claimed by China and in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attended the talks, had pressed for discussion of a multinational agreement to ease tensions—a move opposed by China, which prefers to negotiate with each nation separately.

But Southeast Asian nations argued over how hard to press the Chinese, with countries such as Cambodia resisting any steps that would embarrass China, and the Philippines—which has competing maritime territorial claims with China—pushing to take a harder line, according to people familiar with the talks. Tempers grew so hot that the 10 Asean member nations weren’t able to agree on language for a concluding communiqué, which is typically issued at the end of such summits and used as final records of the events.

Such a failure is “unprecedented” in the group’s 45-year history, said Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, who called it “very disappointing.” “We’ll need time to recover,” he said, adding that “Asean will need to learn how to consolidate and coordinate positions if it wants to take on the global community.”

Mrs. Clinton late Thursday said the talks demonstrated progress because they showed the nations were willing to discuss the difficult issue. But analysts said the result favors Beijing. “Southeast Asian nations have to come up with a common position,” said Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “Anytime they don’t, it’s a victory for China.”

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs blamed Cambodia for “consistently opposing any mention” of one disputed area, according to the Associated Press, which also quoted Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong as saying that the failure to issue a statement lies with all Asean members.

The failure came amid fresh reminders of China’s stepped-up efforts to bolster its claims to the South China Sea, which is believed to be resource rich and is home to key trading routes. China’s Defense Ministry on Friday said a navy frigate on a routine patrol ran aground in the waters near the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by both China and the Philippines. The ministry said nobody was hurt and salvage efforts were underway.

The Philippines Department of National Defense confirmed the incident but didn’t provide further details. Efforts to reach the president’s spokesman were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, China late Thursday announced that it would send a fleet of 30 fishing vessels to those same waters, with the state-run Xinhua news agency saying the ships would spend 20 days fishing there.

China Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also pushed back against the Philippines during the summit. A Xinhua report on Friday said Mr. Yang urged the Philippines on Thursday “to face facts squarely and not to make trouble” over another disputed island, called Scarborough Shoal in English and Huangyan Island in Chinese.

China could continue to push forward in the sea in the short term, said Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, citing domestic public pressure to assert its claims. “On a tactical level, Beijing will be more active,” he said. “It will have more communication with the United States and it will expand China’s presence in the South China Sea, look to drill for oil and send more ships there.”

Reaching an accord will be difficult, and would likely require the U.S. to bring nations siding with China, such as Cambodia, into its camp. Mr. Blumenthal, of AEI, cited Cambodia’s extensive economic ties with that nation, which include significant aid and infrastructure spending. “If China’s going to buy off Cambodia, we need to do what we can to stop that,” he said.

Indeed, the failure of talks in Phnom Penh was in many ways a setback for the U.S., which is trying to expand its involvement in the region and has long tried to fortify Asean as a regional bloc able to present a unified front against expanding Chinese influence. Mrs. Clinton, who traveled to Siem Reap on Friday, announced $50 million in fresh funding for the Lower Mekong Initiative, a three-year old project to provide financial and technical support to countries along the Mekong River, but also, analysts say, to reassert the U.S.’s role in the region. She also met with Myanmar President Thein Sein on the eve of a U.S. business delegation to the once-secretive country, where she endorsed a series of pro-democracy reforms his government has implemented over the past year. The Obama administration this week said it was finally lifting key economic sanctions against the country after promising to suspend them earlier this year.

“The United States will be very disappointed that Asean hasn’t been able to reach agreement on this issue,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “But of course they can’t say that publicly” after pressing so hard to get all the parties to sit down to the table together, he said.

Patrick Barta