As the Philippines prepares to host the 50th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and related meetings, from 2-8 August in Manila, the region’s attention is once again the regional grouping’s unity in the South China Sea (SCS).
Set in the backdrop of the ASEAN’s jubilee in August, the Manila AMM will be another test to ASEAN’s long cherished values mainly unity, consensus, and centrality.
This is more so when it comes to the SCS issue pitting China directly with four claimant countries, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam and “indirectly” other six, namely Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Singapore.
The Manila AMM comes at a very challenging time for ASEAN as there is no indication whatsoever of China slowing down its military and civilian activities in the disputed seas.
This has stoked further tensions detrimental to peace and security. The AMM was formed in 1967 and meets annually with informal retreats and meetings in between.
As such, there is a need for the AMM meeting to demonstrate and display ASEAN’s unity, its cohesiveness, its coherence and a united voice over the contentious issues surrounding the SCS.
Developments since the 2012 AMM in Phnom Penh suggests the ASEAN should not take for granted the importance of unity and consensus especially when it comes to joint communique’s because such a mistake would risk the group’s credibility.
It is worth mentioning the failure of AMM to issue a joint statement for the first time in its history was due to Cambodia, as the then chair of ASEAN, standing against any mention of the SCS conflict.
A communique was only issued after almost a week of the meeting. From the beginning, the ASEAN in its own “softer” approach has not mentioned China by name when making references to the SCS issue, in order not to offend the country.
The lesson is that ASEAN members should not let vital economic links and interests with China take centre stage when working for consensus because it means sacrificing unity on major issues like SCS. Since its formation in 1967, one of ASEAN’s world recognized “trademark” is its consensus approach, meaning decisions are taken by consensus, not by majority votes.
When deliberating on the SCS at the Manila AMM, ASEAN must remember that it has to send a strong and clear message through consensus, as it has a huge responsibility not only to the stability of the region but also the global prosperity. A peaceful SCS is important to the freedom of navigation and overflight as more than US$5 trillion of international shipping trade passing through the strategic waterways annually.
Any weaknesses in terms of unity and centrality could easily be exploited by Beijing to its advantage, especially through its “proxies” in ASEAN. In other words, China needs to respect international laws and diplomatic processes without resorting to any form of force.
Recent events also indicate Beijing’s “backdoor politics” in trying to put pressure and influencing ASEAN members’ decisions on SCS. ASEAN should not let itself to be seen as weak, incoherence or vulnerable to manipulation and interference of external forces. Pressure by others would only exacerbate ASEAN’s divisions which could lead to
ASEAN should not let itself to be seen as weak, incoherence or vulnerable to manipulation and interference of external forces. Pressure by others would only exacerbate ASEAN’s divisions which could lead to a lack of consensus in coming out with a strong statement on SCS.
In June 2016 Special Meeting of ASEAN and China in Kunming reports emerged of how the foreign ministers were shocked with attempts by Beijing to pressure the group to “suit” China’s position on the SCS. Following China’s protests, an ASEAN statement on SCS was withdrawn within hours being released.
To be taken seriously by others especially China, the AMM should take and seen to be take a united and common stand to defend ASEAN’s unity and centrality.
At the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila last April, China was reported tried to influence the content of the final communique. It was not clear to what extent China managed to do that, but there was a clear sign the final communique was watered down, removing any mentioning of concerns over Beijing’s militarization of the artificial islands in SCS. There was also no direct mentioning of The Hague ruling which sided with the Philippines.
However, at the Vientiane AMM in July 2016, although to an extent the group succeeded in adopting a common response, especially on the usage of language in the joint communique, like mentioning importance of non-militarization in the conduct of activities and taking note the concerns by ministers on land reclamations, this is still a water-down reference to the SCS. On the other hand, the document also included no mention of the landmark Hague ruling.
So, judging from China’s past behaviour the ASEAN has to be very careful, not to be “cheated” by anything short of a legally enforceable Code of Conduct (COC). This emerges because there has been no indication China will or has agreed for a legally binding COC so far.
The Manila AMM should send out a united message for the early conclusion of a COC because so far China is seen to be not sincere and using delaying tactics so that it can continue to expand its illegal presence in SCS.
Going back to history, the signing of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) by China and ASEAN members is the only positive action taken by China on the SCS issue, so far.
Even in that case, China had violated some of the main clauses such as refrain from inhabiting islands, shoals and reefs of SCS, a trend continue today with provocative actions, aggressive behaviour and growing assertiveness.
It already turned seven reefs into artificial islands in the Spratlys and built runways, hangars and installed defense missile systems and radars, a clear violation of the DOC.
On the other side, ASEAN also failed to take advantage of The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in July 2016 on SCS, which rejected China’s claims that it enjoys historic rights over most of the SCS.
ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement or a separate statement on the ruling because it does not want to be seen as offending China, which demonstrated ASEAN has no common position on the matter. In fact, the failure for an early COC had pushed the Philippines to take unilateral decision to protect its national sovereignty, by going for arbitration.
In May this year, ASEAN and China agreed to a framework for a COC for SCS, and a draft framework is expected to be submitted at the Manila AMM, also to be attended by China.
Manila’s recent closeness to China, especially for improved economic ties, had made Philippines take a softer stance in regards to SCS. However, this should not be at the expense of ASEAN’s consensus on SCS, as happened at Phnom Penh AMM.
As the current chair of ASEAN, Manila has a certain level of freedom to shape the tone and the language of the final communique at the AMM. However, no concessions should be given in the form of a watered-down statement or communique.
Diplomatically, all ASEAN members have adopted “One China” policy; and on the SCS, ASEAN should also be seen to adopt a “One China” policy and not be seen at times adopting their “own” China policy by each one of its respective members.