Chinese Pressure Effecting ASEAN Unity on South China Sea Dispute

Posted on July 20, 2012


Analysts say continued efforts to unify Southeast Asian nations on the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea are being complicated by Beijing’s rising influence in the region.

ASEAN, a bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations, for the first time in its 45 year history failed to produce a joint statement at a regional summit in Cambodia last week, revealing a deep rift over the issue.

The discord was widely attributed to political pressure from China, which would rather deal separately with the five nations with which it has maritime disputes, rather than confront ASEAN as whole.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is on an emergency tour of Southeast Asia, a trip he describes as an attempt to “restore ASEAN cohesion and unity on the South China Sea.” Speaking in Cambodia Thursday, he said some progress is being made.

“ASEAN centrality requires – demands – ASEAN unity. And the fact is, despite suggestions to the contrary, in actual fact, ASEAN remains united, ASEAN remains cohesive. And therefore, ASEAN remains able to fulfill its role as in the central and driving seat of our region.”

But many say unity is not likely to be achieved with China continuing to exert enormous political pressure on nations like Cambodia, which rely on Beijing for billions of dollars in economic assistance.

Ralph Cossa, a security analyst at the Pacific Forum in Hawaii, says such pressure could eventually work against China.

“I think China wants ASEAN to not unite … But I don’t think China wanted to see it go to the extreme that it did, where essentially now the spotlight is shining on China’s bullying of Cambodia and some of the weaker ASEAN countries.”

Many ASEAN members blame Cambodia, currently the bloc’s chair, for giving into Chinese pressure by rejecting a proposal by the Philippines and Vietnam to mention their territorial disputes with China in the group statement.

Phat Kosal, an Asia researcher at the University of Southern California, says Vietnam is upset that Cambodia chose to side with China, breaking their traditional alliance.

“I think there must be some kind of resentment (on behalf of Vietnam), but not to the level that there is a split in the future because Vietnam knows that Cambodia cannot do much as it is so much under China’s pressure. Cambodia needs assistance to develop its economy.”

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, says it is clear that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in siding with China over Vietnam, is not putting his country’s interest first.

“Hun Sen is showing that he is going to make alliances with the people he thinks serve his interest the best. I don’t think he makes alliances thinking that they serve the country’s interest the best. I think it’s almost always about what serves his political interest and personal interest the best.”

Observers say short-term attempts to build regional consensus on the South China Sea may ultimately prove futile, even during the next ASEAN summit in November.

But the issue is likely to return to ASEAN’s agenda next year, when Brunei – a claimant in the South China Sea – takes its turn as the rotating head of the regional bloc.


Asean,China struggles over maritime row

China and Southeast Asian countries struggled to make progress Wednesday on a code of conduct designed to ease tension in the flashpoint South China Sea, diplomatic sources said.

The two sides were due to meet at a summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Cambodia amid splits on what the code should include and how it should be implemented.

A joint statement to be issued by Asean foreign ministers was also held up as countries wrangled over whether to include a reference to recent spats over the resource-rich area pitting China against Vietnam and the Philippines.

“Asean foreign ministers are having an emergency meeting to resolve the wording on the South China Sea in the joint statement,” one Asian diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Another spoke of “splits and divisions” in the organisation, principally between the Philippines and the chair of the meeting, staunch Chinese ally Cambodia.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa admitted the debate about whether to mention recent incidents, including a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships last month over Scarborough Shoal, remained a sticking point.

The shoal, an outcrop in the South China Sea, is claimed by both countries.

“It’s very important for us to express our concern with what happened whether it be at the shoals, whether it be at the continental shelves,” he told reporters.

“But more importantly than simply responding to the past is to move forward to ensure that these kind of events no longer occur.”

Manila is leading a push for Asean to unite to persuade China to accept a code of conduct based on a UN law on maritime boundaries that would delineate the areas belonging to each country.

Beijing has said it is prepared to discuss a more limited code aimed at “building trust and deepening cooperation” but not one that settles the territorial disputes, which it wants to negotiate with each country separately.

Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters Wednesday that the fact the code was under discussion “is already having a calming effect on all parties”.

Efforts to produce one began 10 years ago, but nations were now engaging seriously and efforts were being made to “move along”, he said.

Planned talks between Asean and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Liechi were repeatedly delayed, however, with a meeting originally scheduled for the morning slipping to a late afternoon slot.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to arrive in Cambodia for a wider regional Asian summit on Thursday, with Washington also pushing for progress on reducing friction in a key shipping lane that is vital to the world economy.

“We look to Asean to make rapid progress with China toward an effective code of conduct in order to ensure that as challenges arise, they are managed and resolved peacefully,” Clinton said in Vietnam on Tuesday.

She said that the South China Sea would be discussed alongside other areas of mutual concern at the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), which groups 26 Asia-Pacific countries and the European Union and starts Thursday.

This risks irking Beijing after the Chinese foreign ministry warned on Tuesday against “hyping” the problem and said it should be kept out of the summit.

“This South China Sea issue is not an issue between China and Asean, but between China and some Asean countries,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters.

“Hyping the South China Sea issue… is against the common aspirations of the people and the main trends of the time to seek development and cooperation.”

 Bangkok Post

Has Chinese power driven Asean nations apart

“Welcome to the Kingdom of Wonder,” say the signs at Phnom Penh airport.

High-level delegates from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) were certainly left scratching their heads as they departed after a week of meetings which ended in embarrassing disarray.

Other banners prepared by the host country featured the official slogan of Cambodia’s year in the chair of Asean: “One Community, One Destiny”. That has an awfully hollow ring to it now.

For the first time in the association’s 45-year history, the foreign ministers from the 10 member countries were unable to agree on a closing statement.

For all the high-profile security, pomp and ceremony, it was as if the bewilderingly-titled events (the “45th AMM/ PMC/ 19th ARF/ 2nd EAS FMM”) had never happened officially.

The reason: China.

Four Asean members are in dispute with Beijing over the sovereignty of the South China Sea – with the Philippines and Vietnam involved in particularly tense arguments.

But the poorest of the association’s members have received billions of dollars in aid and investment from China in recent years.

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Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan

We knew the game all along – we need to play this balancing act. We need to serve as a fulcrum of all sorts of power plays in the region”

Surin PitsuwanAsean Secretary General

And – fairly or not – during Cambodia’s time in the Asean chair, it has faced accusations of doing Beijing’s bidding rather than supporting its colleagues.

Cambodia has tried – as far as possible – to keep the South China Sea issue off the agenda of Asean meetings.

Its refusal to allow a reference to the Philippines’ dispute with China stymied attempts to issue a closing statement following last week’s meetings.

It seemed to confirm the worst fears of diplomats about Asean’s vulnerability to conflicts of interest caused by China’s influence in the region.

With the United States also attempting to increase its engagement, Asean risks being caught in the middle.

“A great game is being played in this part of the world,” said Japan’s ambassador to Asean, Kimihiro Ishikane.

“For Asean to play an important role, it must keep its centrality – its mind-set of independence.”

‘Balancing act’

That is easier said than done. Comparisons are sometimes made between Asean and the European Union – especially as the former moves towards greater economic integration.

But the differences between, say, Greece and Germany are nothing compared to the yawning chasm between Laos – one of the poorest countries in the world – and Singapore, which is one of the wealthiest.

Finding common ground is sometimes a challenge – and countries like Cambodia may feel that China can offer them more assistance in development than their neighbours.

So Asean is in a tricky position. Its rising economic clout has led to increasing interest from the rest of the world. And since the adoption of a charter four years ago – which makes its decisions binding – it has been taken more seriously as an international player.

But this is attracting attention which has the potential to split its membership. The association’s secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, told the BBC that Asean was now strong enough to deal with it.

“This region has become more important to the world – they don’t want it to be derailed, they don’t want any conflict to affect the growth trajectory of this region. We are more important to the world than five years ago,” said Dr Surin.

“We knew the game all along – we need to play this balancing act. We need to serve as a fulcrum of all sorts of power plays in the region. We can’t keep anybody out – because everybody has legitimate interests in the stability and security of this region.”

But if it is indeed a balancing act, then last week Asean took a tumble – raising serious questions about its future.

As the largest member, Indonesia was quick to move to heal the wounds.

Its foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, has embarked on a round of what he calls “shuttle diplomacy” – an effort to patch things up among the quarrelling members.

Following visits to Manila and Hanoi, Mr Natalegawa arrived in Phnom Penh to try to agree a common stance on the South China Sea issue.

“Last week wasn’t a pleasant experience – it was very un-Asean, the lack of consensus,” he told the BBC.

“But Indonesia believes we can have more influence if we are united. We need to quickly get ourselves back on track.”

Mr Natalegawa said he was confident the members would reaffirm their unity. The problem, he said, had been with details of specific incidents being included in a statement – rather than a deeper philosophical split.

“Let’s not labour on the specific incidents – but build the capacity of Asean to deal with these incidents.”

Above all, Mr Natalegawa hopes that last week’s events in Phnom Penh will prove to be an “aberration” rather than a new norm for the association.

He points to Asean’s role in cooling the tensions at the Thai-Cambodia border as evidence of how successful it can be in forging consensus.

But now there can be no doubt about the main challenges to Asean’s chances of becoming a serious geo-political player.

As the “great game” warms up, its community will be tested – and its destiny remains in the balance.


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