ASEAN Summit Fallout Continues On

Posted on July 19, 2012

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Cambodian politicians and bureaucrats have embarked on an exercise in damage control amid continuing fallout from last week’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), when foreign ministers with Phnom Penh as chair, ended an annual summit in acrimony and failed to issue a joint communiqué.

That failure also sharply focused attention on disputes in the South China Sea and Cambodia’s cozy relationship with China and its desire to deal with any territorial disputes with members of the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a bilateral basis.

Heng Samrin, Chairman of Cambodia’s National Assembly, will head a Parliamentary delegation to Hanoifor talks over the weekend in an attempt to placate Vietnamese anger over Cambodia’s apparent siding with China on the issue.

This comes amid a separate peace mission by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa who has taken on the role of mediator and already held talks with The Philippines and Vietnam.

China claims sovereignty over most of the resource-rich sea, including the Spratly and Paracel islands, home to vital shipping lanes. ASEAN members The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims that overlap and are promoting a unified ASEAN approach to negotiating with China.

That difference has caused a nasty split within ASEAN over how best to deal with Beijing and thwarted ASEAN from issuing the customary joint statement, a first in diplomatic bungles in its 45-year history.

The statement itself is normally unremarkable but what did incense members was Cambodia’s close relationship with China and Phnom Penh’s apparent use of the chair to do Beijing’s bidding despite the wishes of fellow ASEAN members.

In particular, Cambodia refused to cater for Manila’s demands that any statement concerning disputes in the South China Sea must mention its standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal.

Cambodia has accepted more than US$10 billion in foreign aid, soft loans and investments from China over the last 18 years, which Prime Minister Hun Sen insists came with no strings attached.

Nobody was convinced of that argument and the ire directed at Cambodia, like its inability to produce a joint statement, was unprecedented.

This perhaps gave other issues a nudge in the right direction.

In the same week Cambodia announced its troops have finally been pulled out of the demilitarized zone around the 11th century temples of Preah Vihear where they had fought a four-year border skirmish with Thailand. Thai soldiers were also redeployed.

Phnom Penh also said Patrick Devillers – a French architect wanted for questioning in China over the massive Bo Xilai corruption scandal — had left for Shanghai of his own accord.

Both issues had generated much heat for the Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong who will be happy to see the back of Devillers and the Thai soldiers. But whether the same will be said for Cambodia, its relationship with China and disputes in the South China Sea is doubtful.

Luke Hunt

Sea of trouble for ASEAN

As predictably as the annual monsoon sweeps across the South China Sea, the question of which country, or countries, own which parts of the maritime region has grown annually more vexing.

The typhoon season ends, the fishing fleets set sail and efforts to find oil and gas beneath the seabed resume. A series of tense face-offs ensue between China and Vietnam or China and the Philippines. Diplomats enjoin all parties to refrain from acts that will inflame the situation.

The story by now seems so familiar, and the tangle of claims so perplexing, that readers can hardly be faulted for mousing over to another story. The truth is, however, that recent events have altered experts’ assessment of the South China Sea disputes and may yet show the way to a game-changing initiative.

Going back several years now, China’s behavior vis-a-vis Vietnam and the Philippines has been so egregiously assertive that even the friendliest of “China hands” are hard put to find excuses. Until recently, Washington’s wisdom was that China is a bumptious new superpower that if carefully and respectfully handled can be reasoned into mature “partnership”.

However, Beijing’s insistence that its claim to ownership of the South China Sea running nearly up to the beaches of Singapore is “absolute” just doesn’t fit the model. Nor does its unrelenting harassment of Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen or its semi-successful efforts to intimidate oil companies under contract by Manila or Hanoi to explore their offshore economic zones. Acts like these don’t jibe with China’s claim that its objective is regional peace and stability.

Profound disillusionment has set in with and within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The 10-nation group has proven a wholly inadequate foil to China’s challenge. Though the US, Japan, Australia and other over-the-horizon powers would much prefer to support a regional approach to preserving the peace, ASEAN just can’t get out in front. The grouping works on the principle of consensus; unfortunately for Manila and Hanoi, ASEAN’s current chairman is China’s client, Cambodia. Thailand, Myanmar and Laos are also notably averse to crossing Beijing.

ASEAN has been trying to forge a consensus on a binding “code of conduct” for the South China Sea. On July 9, heading into the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) with the US, China and other dialogue partners, there were reports that ASEAN senior officials had at last reached agreement on a draft code. Instead, the meeting ended in chaos; participants couldn’t even agree to issue a wrap-up communique.

“Utterly irresponsible,” muttered Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to reporters. “China bought the chair, simple as that,” summarized another unnamed ASEAN official.

Further, the notion that China isn’t really spoiling for a fight looks increasingly strained. In late April, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, issued a lengthy report that described Beijing as not really in control of the situation, despite appearances to the contrary. Instead, said the ICG, China’s central government is driven by public opinion and hamstrung by the ill-coordinated initiatives of its coast guard forces, oil companies and provincial governments on the South China Sea littoral. It was an important report, based on many interviews and doubtless reflecting the comments of hundreds of officials in China and elsewhere.

And yet, excepting perhaps the first few hours of a face-off between well-armed Chinese fishery protection vessels and Philippine patrol boats at a reef 145 off Luzon, nothing that has happened since then substantiates the ICG’s premise that China’s core problem is internal policy incoherence.

Coherent aggression
When China’s diplomats blew off the ASEAN Code of Conduct draft this month, it was just one more event that by its nature must have had Beijing’s approval. That closely followed the China National Offshore Oil Company’s startling invitation to foreign oil companies last month to tender bids for the right to explore nine tracts just off Vietnam’s coast.

At almost the same time last month came China’s proclamation that the Paracel and Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank (which according to China includes the Scarborough Shoal that it has lately contested with the Philippines) are now a Chinese administrative entity called Sansha City. Hainan Province has urged this step for years; up until recently, the central government has refused permission.

In a more ambiguous category are two other recent events: China’s announcement that frigates of its Maritime Surveillance Agency would regularly patrol the Spratlys and the deployment of a 32,000-ton factory ship to support a fleet of smaller fishing boats that Singapore-based experts say are fast depleting South China Sea marine resources.

Against this, Hanoi’s riposte – a vote by its National Assembly to pass a law on the management of Vietnam’s maritime frontiers which does not specify where these are – seems like a comparatively small move. The Vietnamese and Philippine governments wish they could do more to blunt the southward creep of Chinese maritime power but their general staffs, if not members of their legislatures, know that their armed forces are considerably outgunned.

After years of neglect, the Philippine armed forces are barely capable of maintaining domestic order, let alone deterring Chinese encroachment. Vietnam’s navy, air and air defense forces have made strides over the past decade and could likely hold their own in a dust-up with China’s blue water marine surveillance and fisheries enforcement craft. An armed confrontation would, however, give the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) cause to intervene in order to – as Chinese demagogues frequently urge – “teach Vietnam a lesson”.

To restore a balance, Manila and Hanoi have sought military aid wherever it can be found. Philippine President Benigno Aquino has relied in particular on US readiness to ramp up bilateral cooperation under a 60-year-old mutual defense treaty. Vietnam has spread its net wider, buying arms from Russia, France, Canada and the Netherlands, enlisting Indian help in submarine warfare training and multiplying military-to-military contacts with the US, Australia and Japan.

Washington gladly supports exercises aimed at building the capacity of Southeast Asian allies to mount a credible deterrent to China. However, it has consistently discouraged suggestions that its Pacific Fleet assume an active policing role in the South China Sea area. Nor under current circumstances can the US agree to sell lethal weapons to Vietnam. The American Congress, already wary of another open-ended military venture abroad, will demand palpable moderation of the Communist regime’s treatment of its internal critics, a quid pro quo that Hanoi simply will not concede.

That leaves diplomacy – or does it? After Cambodia, Brunei is up next as ASEAN’s chair, followed by Chinese allies Myanmar in 2014 and Laos in 2015. In short, last week the odds against effective action by ASEAN to ward off South China Sea clashes and perhaps to foster real problem-solving by the feuding claimants just got a lot longer.

An obvious work-around would be for a subset of ASEAN members, the five or six that are most strongly opposed to the South China Sea’s incorporation into greater China, to come forward with their own initiative. Ideally, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei, cheered on by Indonesia and Singapore, would sort out among themselves just what it is they claim and do not claim, as proposed in recent articles by independent analysts.

None of the claimants would have to give up their claims at this point, the analysts have argued. But by clarifying the legal basis of their maritime claims and separating these from the more difficult but geographically much smaller disputes based on claims to land features, they would be able to present a united front to China on this crucial point: the only acceptable basis for maritime claims in the South China Sea is international law.

The process just described would challenge the political ingenuity of all six of the Southeast Asian states just mentioned, particularly Vietnam and Malaysia. Vietnam has asserted that it is ready to rely on international law to settle claims, but doing so may play badly with citizens who, like counterparts in China, cling to an expansive notion of Vietnam’s “historical seas”. As for Malaysia, it simply needs to stand up and be counted. So far, Malaysia and Brunei seem to have allowed themselves to imagine that China will be satiated once it has drunk its fill of the waters offshore Vietnam and the Philippines.

China has relied on assertions that its sailors and fishermen traversed “China’s South Sea” in the past, evidently considering that and its growing naval strength to be sufficient argument. As long as the claims of the other littoral states remain ambiguous, the strategic deadlock will persist – a situation that creates optimal conditions for China to create more “facts” and to cut bilateral deals at the expense of other claimants.

Conversely, if the ASEAN states with most at stake can forge a common position anchored in principles of international law, they will have a far more compelling claim to support by others – once again, most notably, by the US.

David Brown

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Posted in: Politics