China, US widen ASEAN rifts

Posted on July 27, 2012


The post-mortems of the failure by Asean to agree on a hitherto routine joint statement after their 45th Ministerial Meeting are coming in thick and heavy. Recriminations and acrimony are crisscrossing the region, the shockwaves being felt and analysed across the Pacific and to the Atlantic.

Although keen to show a united front, Asean’s feckless attempt to forge a united statement on the South China Sea issue reflects deep divisions in the regional group and the influence of China and the United States on some of its members.

The annual ministerial joint communiques are as old as Asean itself. Its unprecedented absence is thus a serious setback for the 10-member organisation, a crucial blow to its credibility and coherence in the lead-up to its much-vaunted Asean Community by 2015. While the diplomatic damage incurred in Phnom Penh will be glossed over in Asean capitals, serious and effective efforts beyond damage-control are needed before the Asean summit and its related top-level meetings with other major partners are held in November.

What transpired in the Cambodian capital on July 13 is still not completely clear and confirmed. But it is widely accepted that Asean’s inability to stand jointly on even a diluted position was attributable to Cambodia’s disagreement with the Philippines and Vietnam. As the rotating chair of Asean for 2012, Cambodia refused to include specific references to the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which is being hotly disputed by the Philippines and China. Vietnam also wanted to include wording on its right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as sanctioned by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. In other words, both Manila and Hanoi have rejected and challenged Beijing’s claims over practically the entire South China Sea, through which more than half of global shipping passes. Apart from the Philippines and Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also are Asean claimants of parts of the sea vis-a-vis China.

The broader backdrop to this controversy is the set of rules that need to be formulated and implemented by China and the Asean claimants. Such rules, known as the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, would deter military solutions, address territorial disputes and provide dispute-settlement mechanisms in view of international law. As a tentative understanding, Asean and China a decade ago came up with a Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Under the Cambodian chairmanship, the DOC is supposed to be elevated, finalised and codified into a COC. Asean’s debacle in Phnom Penh means the COC remains elusive.

An even broader regional canvass indicates the chief challenge for Southeast Asia as a region, as opposed to a regional organisation under Asean. The future of this neighbourhood shines brightly. It is likely to be prosperous and dynamic, notwithstanding its assortment of developmental problems ranging from wealth gaps and middle-income traps to rights abuses and environmental degradation. But its past is problematic, riven by enmity and conflict.

Achieving prosperity and securing peace requires rules and institutions to manage regional dilemmas, challenges and conflicts. The South China Sea is thus a key test for Southeast Asia’s future.

Following the Phnom Penh controversy, China’s role and strategic intentions have come into fuller focus but they cannot be viewed in separation from the United States’ highly-touted strategic rebalancing of its resources and assets increasingly towards East Asia and the Pacific.

As Asean chair, Cambodia will have a difficult time avoiding blame for not being able to come up with a mild Asean statement, even agreeing to disagree in writing, which Asean has been an expert in doing in the past. This time Asean disagreed and disagreed and proved it without a written document.

The Cambodian leadership would not have risked so much of its credibility, had it not been so beholden to Beijing. China has become an open patron state of Phnom Penh, having poured in more than US$10 billion (316 billion baht) of aid and investment in as many years. As many have noted the proof and irony, even the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh where the Asean ministers met was built by Chinese funds and adorned by Chinese art.

But neither can Manila shirk responsibility for insisting on its Scarborough Shoal dispute with Beijing to be mentioned in writing. Here is where the US rebalancing comes into view.

As a treaty ally of Washington, Manila may have been less assertive and more measured in its posture without America’s Pacific rebalancing. Although it is hard to imagine Washington’s willingness to go to war with Beijing over some Manila-claimed rocks in the South China Sea, it is plausible that Washington’s re-engaged focus, commitment and resolve have emboldened the Philippines to stand up to China so vociferously.

Vietnam’s role in Phnom Penh is as yet unclear. Its insistence on referring to the EEZ in the joint statement may be attributable to opportunism. If Manila can have Scarborough Shoal mentioned, why not Hanoi’s EEZ?

Both Cambodia’s and the Philippines’ performances raise doubts at the diplomatic level. If seasoned diplomats were present on both sides, they would have been able to hammer out a joint position without all of the unnecessary acrimony. In Cambodia’s case, such doubts on its diplomats would be heightened if it is true, as has been reported, that the Cambodians shared the draft version of the joint statement with the Chinese, who then vetoed it.

The aftermath of Asean’s collectively impotent and individually insistent ways in Phnom Penh suggests a regional mix that is structurally different from the recent past. Asean has always had diverse and disparate interests, and the organisation has been granted much latitude in its region-building efforts.

The differences now are at least threefold. First, China’s posture is much more assertive and less hedged, as evident on South China Sea issues and beyond. This point reflects China’s jilted imperial pride, internal imperatives for growth, the transition of new leadership (which cannot afford to appear weak), inroads into its Asean relationships, particularly Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand to a lesser extent. China knows that its pressure on and clout over certain Asean members would prevent key common Asean positions, such as the Philippine push for COC implementation. China thus wins for now on its bilateral approach.

Second, the US is more engaged as opposed to the previous decade. Its rebalancing means certain Asean members can rely on the US’s new posture to hedge and leverage vis-a-vis China. The Philippines is at the forefront here but to a lesser extent also Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. In other words, current internal Asean rifts are attributable not just to China’s assertive rise but also to the US’s vigorous re-engagement.

Third, Asean’s internal coherence is not what it used to be. On one hand, the Asean Charter codifies more cooperation and connectivity. On the other, the interests of Asean member states are more divergent. The Community objectives of 2015 can neither be taken at face value nor for granted. At a minimum, the Asean Political-Security Community (APSC) _ one of the three main pillars of the charter _ now appears challenged in view of what happened in Phnom Penh. This raises the question whether the potentially vigorous Asean Economic Community and the evidently weak Asean Socio-Cultural Community can shore up the APSC.

The states of maritime and mainland Asean appear to be increasingly preoccupied with different sets of interests. To rectify Asean’s recent misstep and regain the momentum towards 2015, the organisation’s leadership in all member states have much homework until November. The silver lining amidst adversity in Cambodia was Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s last-ditch effort to come up with a six-point statement, which merely reaffirmed principles of the DOC. Read by Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, it saved Asean’s face and salvaged what would have otherwise been a complete disaster. Such leadership will need to be broadened and shared by other Asean member states in the coming months.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

US wants collaborative diplomatic process to resolve tension

WASHINGTON: The US supports a collaborative diplomatic process to resolve the South China Sea dispute between China and its neighbours as it is against measures that are seen as potential threats to some in the region, a top American official has said.

>> U.S. meddling in maritime disputes detrimental to Asia-Pacific peace

“The US position is clear. We support a collaborative, diplomatic process by all claimants to resolve these disputes, and we are concerned about unilateral actions. There should be dialogue among the countries in the region,” Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer said.

“It’s something we’ve been trying to promote and therefore we need to ensure that these questions are resolved within the framework of existing international law and through dialogue and not any measures that are seen as potential threats to some in the region,” Hammer said in his interaction with journalists at the Washington Foreign Press Center.

The United States, he said, does not take a position on competing sovereignty claims over land features in the South China Sea.

“We call on all claimants to clarify and pursue their claims in accordance with international law, including as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” he said.

At another news conference, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the US is in talks with its ASEAN colleagues, as they talk to China about these things.

“We share the concern that these issues need to be handled within international law, within Law of the Sea Treaty terms, and we think it’s important that members of Congress are also speaking out and particularly important committee members for that part of the world,” she added.

The Economic Times

Why all the fuss in the South China Sea?

After the disparate nations that make up the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) failed to agree on a roadmap to resolution on the South China Sea, China went ahead and — shockingly — did its own thing.

It established a brand new city in the region.

For some time, China has claimed the islands in the South China Sea and the surrounding waters as Chinese territory. It says that historical findings in the area, namely pottery shards and some old maps, mean the entire region belongs to China, full-stop. 

From the perspective of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, however, a number of Southeast Asian countries have legitimate claims to territory in the South China Sea.

In effort to clear up any gray area, China has established its new prefecture, called Sansha and located on Yongxing Island, which is meant administer the Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea.

Yes, it’s controversial.

To help make sense of the moves we talked with Andrew Billo, senior program officer with the Asia Society who specializes in Southeast Asia.

The South China Sea has been a flashpoint for decades. What is pushing the issue to a head now?

Without a doubt, the US involvement is pushing this to a head. The new factor over the last, say, two years, is the increased US interest in this region. Southeast Asian countries are emboldened by US interest in this issue and the fact that they might have the support of the US military in respect to this issue even if the US has not explicitly said so.

The US has said explicitly that it’s not taking sides in the matter but at the same time it’s evident to everyone involved that the US is in fact showing partiality to some of these smaller ASEAN countries.

The US has been pressing very hard in the region, with Leon Panetta going to Vietnam and with the US submarine being parked in Subic Bay in the Philippines. These are little measures, but they are making China nervous and making China assert itself to a greater extent within this region.

And the economy is behind the US interest?

The US has recognized its economic interests lie in the Asian region. Europe was perhaps the main economic interest of the US in the last half of the 20th century, and Asia is of course looking like it’s going to be the main economic driver for this century. The US is recognizing that it needs to be more of a part of that economic engine.

What’s really at stake in the South China Sea?

Primarily the energy resources, and to a lesser extend the fisheries, and then to an even lesser extent tourism potential. And the other issue is of course the freedom of navigation issues. But I see it primarily as an energy issue. People are eyeing the energy potential of the region, I don’t think they’re out to block these trade routes specifically.

What is that resource potential exactly?

Well, no one really knows actually. Any time exploratory activities are undertaken, other countries put up a fuss. China won’t even let Vietnam begin to look, or when Vietnam does begin to look there’s always an issue. So people don’t really have a very clear idea as to what it is exactly that they’re fighting over. But I think that potential is there.

So are we likely to see an escalation soon?

I think at present the economies in that part of the world, or at least in that basin, are relatively stable and even growing, so it isn’t in anyone’s best interest to have tensions escalate. While things continue to progress in a more or less positive manner, so long as these societies are relatively content with their situation, we aren’t likely to see an escalation.

But at a certain point China’s not going to have sufficient energy resources to support its own population. Nor are some of these other countries. If it gets to that point, that’s when we’ll see an escalation. Conventional belief is that this will not really escalate really further within the next 10 years or so, but after 10 years, who knows? This is the window of time to iron things out before it comes to a head.

What can be done to iron things out?

I think ASEAN is the best way to move forward with this, and they have a declaration on the code of conduct with respect to the South China Sea. But ASEAN also issues a lot of declarations, and declarations are just that. They’re not binding.

There was a lot of disappointment at the recent ASEAN summit in Cambodia when they were unable to issue further steps forward with respect to the code of conduct. China lobbied very hard for Cambodia to keep the issue off the agenda. So that was a significant blow to this moving forward.

I think it’s a tough year right now with US political change and Chinese political change. I think that if you can get past the end of this year then it buys more time and allows things to cool off a bit.

Emily Lodish

South China Sea: A decades-long source of tension

Rival claims to the South China Sea have for decades been a source of tension in the region. Below are key facts on the sea and the competing claims:
The South China Sea covers more than 3,000,000 square kilometers (1,200,000 square miles) on the western edge of the Pacific, with China and Taiwan to the north, the Philippines to the east, Borneo Island to the south, and Vietnam to the west.
It contains hundreds of small islands, islets and rocks, most of which are uninhabited. The Paracel and Spratly island chains contain the biggest features.
The sea is the main maritime link between the Pacific and Indian oceans, giving it enormous trade and military value. Most of the seaborne trade, including of oil and gas, between Europe and the Middle East and East Asia passes through the sea.
Major unexploited oil and gas deposits are believed to lie under the seabed.
The sea is home to some of world’s biggest coral reefs and, with marine life being depleted close to coasts, it is becoming increasingly important as a source of fish to feed growing populations.
China and Taiwan both claim nearly all of the sea, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei each have often-overlapping claims to parts of it.
China’s claim is based on a historical map of “nine dashes” that approaches the coast of other countries. But rival countries complain the dashes are kept deliberately vague so that no one knows China’s exact claims.
Beijing and most other countries know it as the South China Sea. Hanoi calls it the East Sea and Manila officially refers to it as the West Philippine Sea.
China has held all of the Paracel islands since a conflict with South Vietnam in 1974 that left 53 Vietnamese military personnel dead.
Vietnam is believed to occupy or control more than 20 of the Spratly islands and reefs, the most of any claimant.
Taiwan has a garrison controlled by its coastguard on Itu Aba island, which is called Taiping in Chinese and is the largest in the Spratlys. Taiwan announced in July it would deploy longer-range artillery there.
The Philippines occupies nine of the Spratlys, including Thitu island, the second largest in the area. The Philippines has a military presence and civilians living on Thitu, which it calls Pagasa.
China occupies at least seven of the Spratlys, including Johnson Reef, which it gained after a naval battle with Vietnam in 1988.
Malaysia occupies three of the Spratlys. The most significant presence is on Swallow Reef, called Layang Layang Island in Malaysia, where it has a naval post and a diving resort.
Brunei does not occupy any feature but claims a submerged reef and a submerged bank in the Spratlys.
Tensions – China/Vietnam
Aside from the 1974 battle for the Paracels, the only other major conflict occurred when Vietnam and China fought a naval battle on Johnson Reef in the Spratlys in 1988 that left 70 Vietnamese military personnel dead.
However, Chinese naval vessels have fired at other times on Vietnamese fishing boats in the area.
In 2011, Vietnam accused Chinese marine surveillance vessels of cutting an oil survey ship’s exploration cables, sparking nationalist protests in Vietnamese cities.
In June this year, Vietnam passed a law proclaiming its jurisdiction over all of the Paracel and Spratly islands, triggering Chinese protests.
About the same time China announced it had created a new city, Sansha, on one of the Paracel islands, which would administer Chinese rule over its South China Sea domain.
Tensions – China/Philippines
In 1995, China began building structures on Mischief Reef, within the Philippines’ claimed exclusive economic zone.
Tensions between the two nations started to ratchet up significantly in March 2011, when Chinese vessels harassed a Philippine-chartered gas exploration vessel at Reed Bank.
The Philippines then accused the Chinese of a pattern of intimidation, including firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen and laying buoys in Philippine claimed islets.
A standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels that began in April this year at Scarborough Shoal further inflamed tensions.
In June, Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario accused China of “duplicity” and “intimidation.”
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China adopted a non-binding “declaration of conduct” in 2002 to discourage hostile acts.
But attempts to turn it into a legally binding “code of conduct” have failed.
The dispute has created divisions within ASEAN. A meeting of foreign ministers in July ended for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history without a joint statement because of infighting over the issue.
Meeting host Cambodia, a China ally, rejected a Philippine push for the statement to take a harder line against the Chinese. — Agence France-Presse
Data drawn from AFP’s archives, International Crisis Group reports and
Panatag Shoal timeline
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