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Saturday, March 25, 2017
- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Cambodia, bringing together top leaders of all ten member nations represents a critical juncture to ensure regional security and in shaping the fate of the organisation itself, as divergent strategic positions among member countries threaten the very fabric of the regional body.
Earlier this year during the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as the ASEAN’s current chair blocked the inclusion of ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea in the final communiqué, provoking uproar among certain members, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, who accused Cambodia of doing China’s bidding. As a result, the meeting failed to issue a final communiqué for the first time in the organisation’s 45-year history – precipitating a diplomatic fallout among member nations, with Philippine-Cambodia relations suffering a temporary but dramatic nosedive.
Cambodia’s actions stood in contrast to the more pro-active chairmanships of Vietnam in 2010 and Indonesia in 2011, where ASEAN made a more concrete move towards establishing a more binding Code of Conduct (CoC) to supplement the highly symbolic 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in South China Sea, which called for a rule-based and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes.
The 2012 ministerial meeting failed to build on earlier multilateral efforts to even iron out the contours of guidelines for a more binding regional CoC, ostensibly to rein in territorial tensions and regulate the behaviour of conflicting parties in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, China still insists on a bilateral resolution of the disputes.
The whole episode created a cloud of uncertainty over the fate of an organisation found on the principles of solidarity, consensus, and consultation, with a growing number of commentators questioning the very centrality as well as the utility of ASEAN as an agent of stability, cooperation, and security in the region.
Writing for the Asia Times, Southeast Asia expert Amitav Achariya captured this growing concern by stating, “…the idea of ASEAN centrality, which assumes that ASEAN, rather than the great powers like China, Japan, the U.S. or India, should be the building bloc and hub of developing a wider Asian or Asia-Pacific regional architecture, is facing a severe test.”
“That failure (absence of a final communiqué) cast significant doubt on ASEAN’s ability to evolve and tackle tough issues. It also caused troubling allegations, especially from Vietnam and the Philippines, that Cambodia had placed its close relationship with China above the interests of its fellow ASEAN members,” argued Gregory Poling and Alexandra Sander of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Currently, ASEAN members such the Philippines and Vietnam are locked in a bitter conflict with China over a whole host of features in the South China Sea. Diplomacy has partly suffered because of China’s notorious ‘9-dashline’ doctrine, which stipulates that is has ‘inherent and indisputable sovereignty’ over almost all features in the South China Sea.
There is also a domestic political angle: Grappling with a cocktail of outsized domestic economic and political challenges, the Chinese leadership is experiencing a highly sensitive period of transition. With communism losing its ideological appeal, it is popular nationalism that has become the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) main tool to placate an increasingly restive nation.
Thus, in recent years, we have seen rising popular pressure on the political leadership to assert China’s territorial claims in adjacent waters of East and South China Seas. This also partly explains the rising influence of more hawkish elements within the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) – already a beneficiary of a growing chunk of China’s ballooning military budget – which have called for a more aggressive approach to securing the country’s territorial claims.
Adding to the complexity of the issue, the U.S.’ ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific has also injected a new geopolitical layer to the ongoing territorial disputes. Back in April, the Philippines and China squared off over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, culminating in a bitter series of naval and diplomatic jostling over the control of the disputed feature and its surrounding waters.
After securing its control over the shoal, aided by a bilateral agreement that oversaw the withdrawal of Philippine warships from the disputed area, China stepped up its fortifications by expanding its military garrisons and paramilitary infrastructure in occupied features within the Paracels and Spratly chain of islands, encouraging both the Philippines and Vietnam to further deepen their increasingly revitalised military ties with the U.S.
With the U.S. identifying ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea as a cornerstone of its national interest, and signaling its commitment to the defence of its Asian allies against China’s perceived encroachments, Washington has de facto carved out its place at the centre of simmering territorial conflicts.
Responding in kind, China has rapidly improved it’s ‘anti-access’ and blue naval capabilities to counter U.S. maritime dominance in the Pacific, increased its diplomatic and economic pressure on U.S. allies such as the Philippines, and more aggressively leveraged its favourable ties with ASEAN members such as Cambodia, where Beijing dominates the overall trade and investment picture, to push its interests within regional bodies. Ironically, the U.S. pivot seems to have only encouraged greater Chinese assertiveness.
Despite growing cynicism over this year’s ASEAN summit, there is some room for cautious optimism. The past month or so has witnessed a qualitative shift in the strategic predisposition of countries such as the Philippines. Recognising the importance of healthy bilateral ties with China and Cambodia, Manila has engaged in a diplomatic charm-offensive to restore a measure of ASEAN-wide urgency in pushing for a regional CoC and to de-escalate maritime tensions between China, on one hand, and Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, on the other.
So, in many ways, the upcoming summit in Cambodia marks a make-or-break moment for not only ASEAN as a supposedly coherent regional organisation, but also the prospects of a peaceful resolution of ongoing territorial disputes. After all, the 2012 summit theme is: ‘ASEAN: One Community, One Destiny’.