ASEAN Fallout: What To Expect In The South China Sea

Posted on July 24, 2012

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Forty-five years of continuous tradition came to an abrupt end last week when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Phnom Penh closed without agreeing on a joint declaration. Here’s what to expect in the aftermath of political deadlock in the world’s most apolitical bloc.

Many believed that of all the possible outside arbitrators, it was ASEAN that combined the legitimacy and political will that would be necessary to impose a mutually acceptable settlement in the South China Sea dispute. This was after all the organization that had already produced a non-binding code of conduct for parties in the South China Sea back in 2002, a milestone that it was about to build on with the drafting of a new, binding version of the agreement. Yet all it took was a few low interest loans and some timely political recognition in the aftermath of the 1997 coup for China to eventually pry Cambodia from the ASEAN fold, and in doing so destroy the illusion of intra-ASEAN solidarity.

The reason why the South China Sea issue didn’t make it into the summit’s final statement is that Cambodia, acting on the behalf of Chinese interests, stubbornly refused to heed the demands of other ASEAN members and in its capacity as ASEAN Chair for 2012, eventually scuttled the final statement altogether. These events have cast the latest summit in Phnom Penh as a stunning failure, perhaps the largest in ASEAN’s history, and they will no doubt send ripples throughout the region.

First there’s the unresolved question of the South China Sea. The failure of Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, and Malaysia to leverage ASEAN and temper Chinese activities in the South China Sea will open the door for Beijing to continue a belligerent diplomatic track. China has ramped up its war of words against the Philippines in the wake of the ASEAN conference, primarily through the CCP mouthpieces of the Global Times and People’s Daily, and a fleet of 30 fishing vessels has been dispatched to the Spratly Islands to send a message to Vietnam. This tenuous, crisis-like situation will persist until the Chinese leadership turns over later this year at the very earliest, as now is not the time for any Chinese politicians to appear weak on core issues of national security.

This begs the question of how the diminutive members of ASEAN are going to pursue their sovereignty claims against China in the future. To do so bilaterally would be akin to a mouse playing hardball with a cat, and it seems quite clear that ASEAN will have no say in the matter, at least until Brunei takes over in 2013. Many of these countries will be left with no choice but to turn towards the United States, which itself is midway through a ‘pivot’ towards Asia.

ASEAN’s public display of impotence is critically important because it suggests a paradigm shift in regional security perceptions. Though born of the Cold War’s political crusading, ASEAN has come to be seen as a model international grouping. Its apolitical nature has allowed for broad consensus on a wide variety of issues in the past, an impressive feat given the diverse group of states that make up ASEAN’s membership. But perhaps most importantly, the bloc has come into its own as a local product that is completely divorced from the Cold War system of alliances; a system where all roads led to the West. ASEAN taking the lead on the South China Sea dispute was supposed to stand as an example that Asian security challenges can be resolved by regional actors without the meddling of outside powers. It thus stands as slightly ironic that the state that manufactured this failure is the very one that has the most to lose from emphasizing the importance of the United States in matters of Asian security. Perhaps in this we see the triumph of Chinese domestic politics over its long-term security considerations.

Thus, the biggest legacy of the failure in Phnom Penh will be a swift return into the hearts of statesmen throughout Southeast Asia of the fear of having to negotiate with a rising China on a bilateral basis; the very fear that modern ASEAN was predicated on alleviating. In order to escape their compromised position, member states will be hedging their bets by warming up to Washington, much in the same way that Vietnam has been in the past decade. The Philippines will also have to make some difficult choices as its planning shifts towards how to balance against Chinese military power. Manila’s conclusions might very well include a provision for the reestablishment of a US military base in Subic Bay.

The ASEAN Political-Security Community may be another casualty of this latest summit. This is a platform of greater political integration that was supposed to be adopted in 2015. The Political-Security Community would have codified the importance of democratic values and norms as well as established a system of shared security mechanisms. But now ASEAN’s future doesn’t seem so certain, as it’s hard to sustain the illusion of a shared community when member states can so easily be lured away from the flock.

It is also worth noting that the Japanese government could take advantage of the current free-for-all in the South China Sea to push its own claim on the Diaoyu Islands. There are already indications that Tokyo is going ahead with a plan to nationalize the islands, a move that would provoke a fierce response from Beijing, perhaps even a dangerous one given the current political climate in China.

Zachary Fillingham

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Posted in: Politics