The division within ASEAN has now become serious enough to make any ASEAN-China talks meaningless. At the meeting held in Vientiane, Laos, on July 24, the ASEAN foreign ministers were not able to agree on a joint statement. The “maritime” ASEAN members wanted the statement to refer to the July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) against China’s position in the South China Sea, whereas Laos and Cambodia resisted, under strong pressure by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The joint statement was issued the next day without referring to The Hague’s decision.
ASEAN should reconsider its currently unproductive approach to China. Most recent ASEAN and ASEAN-related meetings have failed to produce joint statements criticizing China for not observing the rule of law in the South China Sea, even though both ASEAN and China adopted in 2002 the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Ten years later, in 2012, China agreed to strengthen the declaration, making it a more binding Code of Conduct. To date, however, no agreement has been reached. China has simply prolonged negotiations while continuing its buildup on reefs and shoals that it claims.
This political division between maritime ASEAN nations and pro-China ASEAN nations first became apparent in 2012 when Cambodia, supporting China, blocked the foreign ministers, who were meeting at the ASEAN Regional Forum, from issuing a joint statement criticizing China for its behavior in the South China Sea. They have since blocked any criticism of China at subsequent ASEAN and ASEAN-related meetings. Because of their weak economies, Laos and Cambodia are dependent on China’s help and thus are afraid to speak against it. In addition, these countries are not claimants in the South China Sea. That is, they are hardly interested in maritime security but are simply toeing China’s line.
Despite the ruling by the PCA on July 12, China continues to cling to its position, dismissing the ruling as “waste paper,” and it even conducted a naval drill in the South China Sea a few days before the PCA ruling was issued. Moreover, in late July, China and Russia announced that they would conduct a joint naval exercise in the South China Sea in September. Beijing also rejected bilateral talks with the Philippines if it insisted on including the PCA’s ruling.
All the maritime ASEAN nations — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam — are concerned with not only the safety of sea lines of communication but also the rule of law. When Singapore had a dispute with Malaysia over the island of Pedra Blanca, offshore Singapore, the two parties appealed to the International Court of Justice, which ruled in 2008 that the island belonged to Singapore. The two countries readily accepted the ruling, which is how the rule of law should operate.
Accordingly, the six like-minded countries or the four claimants within ASEAN should form a group of nations within or outside ASEAN that could consult with one another and together negotiate with China. This would be more useful than the 10-member ASEAN meetings, which the internal conflicts within ASEAN have made counterproductive.
The unity or “centrality” of ASEAN should not be diminished. ASEAN has many concerns, including the intraregional promotion of trade and tourism, the prevention of transnational crime, on which ASEAN should continue to speak as one whenever possible.
The maritime ASEAN nations can decide together on the best way to reduce tensions with China in the South China Sea and then take action. For instance, these nations could organize a joint coast guard patrol with the support of their external partners, such as the United States, Australia, and Japan. Such a patrol might be able to control the illegal destruction of corals and overfishing to protect the marine environment.
Nations outside ASEAN should be involved in the South China Sea as well. In addition to freedom-of-navigation operations, the United States patrols the skies, as does Australia. Japanese naval ships conduct joint exercises with their Philippine counterparts and regularly visit Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, and France has called for European navies to form a joint patrol of the South China Sea.
Regional mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM), and ADMM Plus (ADMM and regional partners) cannot be expected to offer solutions to the tensions in the South China Sea as long as China (and its followers, including Russia) refuses to negotiate. Instead, like-minded nations in the region should consult with one another on practical ways to promote their claims, yet, ease tensions.
Masashi Nishihara (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, Tokyo. He is also a Japanese member of the Experts and Eminent Persons Group of the ASEAN Regional Forum.
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