From regional flashpoint to flat point

What to make of the South China Sea issue sinking in the ASEAN summit?

Huong Le Thu

International relations, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

3 May 2017

Has ASEAN given up on tackling the South China Sea issue? Huong Le Thu writes that the current consensus suggests so.

The outcome of the 30th ASEAN Summit on 29 April in Manila suggests that the Southeast Asian region has moved on from the disputes over South China Sea, despite the fact that no other issue more vividly displays ASEAN’s weak unity and low effectiveness in responding to China’s pressure.

This isn’t the first time ASEAN has failed to rise to the challenge. In 2012 the ASEAN summit chaired by Cambodia concluded without a joint statement on the South China Sea because ASEAN’s leaders could not reach consensus. At the time, China’s growing assertive posture in the South China Sea, artificial island building and heavy militarisation, caused the Southeast Asian states, particularly the active claimants, to be increasingly nervous.

But as tensions grew in the years that followed, ASEAN’s regional voice and action on the South China Sea became inversely proportionate. For ASEAN, each subsequent summit became an exercise in how to respond to the crisis without excessively agitating Beijing; how to get by without losing face.

ASEAN’s capacity to get its act together appeared to be steadily decreasing, but for those who wanted this to happen, there remained perhaps two last hopes to cling onto. First, it seemed that ASEAN’s severe confidence deficiency had already hit rock bottom, from which it could surely only bounce upward. Secondly, the Philippines was the host for this year’s summit.

More on this: Duterte’s great power play

Of all claimants, it was the Philippines that formally took action into their hands in regards to the South China Sea dispute by launching a case to the Arbitral Tribunal. Disappointingly, although the ruling was in favour of Manila, it was met with rather little enthusiasm both domestically in the Philippines, and in the broader region.

Since coming to power in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a very different stance on many issues from his predecessor Aquino, including his response to the South China Sea issue. Offending his country’s long-term allies in the US with his statements about then President Obama, and seeking economic deals with China, illustrated his “revisionist” approach.

With a reputation for being a “strongman”, some hoped that Duterte could find the inner strength to be outspoken at the ASEAN summit in his home turf, particularly given that his relationship with Beijing didn’t prove as rosy as initially expected.

The 30th Summit, however, avoided addressing China’s militarisation activities in the SCS. Instead, there was a copy-paste formula of ASEAN states adhering to the principles of peace and stability.

Moreover, disappointingly, China’s island-building was downgraded from “serious concern” to “concern” in the joint statement. In doing so, Duterte gave the impression that the South China Sea (or the West Philippines) is not his battle, and certainly not through ASEAN. The statement from Manila also suggests that there is a strong aversion towards treating ASEAN as a mechanism for regional disputes. Even if “some member states” have not come to terms with the SCS becoming “China’s lake”, they might have to come to terms with the fact that ASEAN as a grouping is out of this game.

But what, apart from having a voice on regional security matters, could justify ASEAN’s existence and the many leaders’ retreats? Again, for those who still want to believe, there might be two reasons.

More on this: Brexit serves as a warning to ASEAN

Firstly, there is an argument that ASEAN has actually successfully played its regional role and deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. In relative terms, the South China Sea troubles seem nothing in comparison with the tensions of the Northeast Asian nuclear challenge and Kim Jong-un. By avoiding potential confrontations on the South China Sea, ASEAN is actually acting as a “guardian” for peace, even if it is peace at all costs.

The second explanation would suggest a need to adjust general expectations from ASEAN. The main issue with being disappointed with ASEAN’s inability to act and a deepening perception of losing relevance is the hope that it could play a more significant regional role. That it cannot act – or is not willing to – could be linked to the changing interests and aspirations of its members. Generational change has happened in two of the region’s largest democracies, with Indonesia and the Philippines electing populist leaders, while Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar have not been recently particularly vocal on the common regional security outlook, more preoccupied with their internal challenges. Vietnam and Singapore seem to be the only countries with some continuity in domestic politics and strategic thinking.

If this interpretation of the changing role and aspiration of ASEAN makes any sense then it requires the leaders to manage the expectation by actually communicating their intentions. At the age of 50, an update for ASEAN’s mission and vision would not necessarily be a bad idea. However, regional leaders need to think beyond their local constituencies and actually convince us that they have an updated vision of an “ASEAN 2.0.” and what it looks like. Otherwise the first explanation of avoiding conflict at all costs – a de facto appeasement – will remain uncontested.

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