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ASEAN Stumbles Again On South China Sea

MANILA, Nov 24 2012 (IPS) - Against the backdrop of growing territorial tensions in the South China Sea, inflamed by a more explicit Sino-American rivalry in the Pacific theatre, the recently-concluded ASEAN Summit in Cambodia represented the best chance at bolstering regional security through peaceful, multilateral mechanisms.

With the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) gathering coinciding with the pan-regional East Asia and ASEAN+3 Summits, Cambodia, as the current chair of the ASEAN, took centre-stage in a broader international gathering, which brought together leading Pacific powers such as the U.S., China, Japan and India.

Ahead of the ASEAN Summit, many commentators as well as regional leaders expressed their hopes for some form of diplomatic breakthrough to address festering maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Recent months have also witnessed growing diplomatic pro-activeness by countries such as Indonesia to mend intra-regional rifts, especially between Cambodia and the Philippines, and re-focus diplomatic efforts on a peaceful and rule-based resolution of ongoing disputes. For instance, the Indonesian-proposed “six points of consensus” highlights the commitment of regional states to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the adoption of a legally binding regional Code of Conduct (CoC).

“We are hoping and expecting that there will be smooth and very productive results of these meetings as far as our advocacies are concerned,” said Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez. “What is important here is to underscore the ASEAN centrality and, for ASEAN it has always been our position that any initiatives (such as the CoC) should first be accepted and approved by ASEAN and only then would it be presented to other dialogue partners.” His statements echoed Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s cautious optimism regarding a more unified regional stance on the issue of maritime security.

Interestingly, the Philippines has also been very busy with thawing out increasingly frayed relations with both China and Cambodia in recent months, hoping to build positive momentum ahead of the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh.

The newly re-elected President Obama also called for easing of tensions among claimant states, warning against an escalation in disputes, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier identified the territorial conflicts as a ‘critical issue’ in need of urgent resolution.

However, much to the disappointment of some Southeast Asian nations, especially the Philippines and Cambodia – reportedly at the behest of China – once again blocked the inclusion of the South China Sea dispute in the summit’s agenda. After all, China has repeatedly warned against ‘internationalising’ the disputes, while actively sidestepping the issue in all recent regional multilateral forums.

In essence, Cambodia has effectively trammeled any development on the crucial issue of adopting a more binding CoC to not only rein in China’s growing territorial assertiveness in the near future, but to also lay down the foundations of a more robust regional approach to resolve intractable territorial conflicts in the long run.

Far from unprecedented, Cambodia’s recent move mirrored its earlier stance during the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in June, where it blocked the inclusion of maritime disputes in the final communiqué. While Cambodia’s actions during the AMM prompted a flash walkout then by the Filipino Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, this time Manila resorted to a formal protest against Cambodia’s decision to once again block the issue from the ASEAN’s agenda.

“Among the principles that the ASEAN community has pledged to abide by is that of centrality; it should also be foremost in our minds as we address concerns in the East Asian maritime region. Prevailing tensions in the area stand to impact regional peace and stability,” President Aquino shrieked in his formal intervention during the ASEAN+3 Summit. “We reiterate our call on all parties concerned to avoid the threat or use of force, and to adhere to universally recognised principles of international law in settling disputes…because respect for the rule of law remains the great equaliser in the relations among nations.”

Aware of Cambodia’s cosy ties with China, Manila’s strategy during the recently-concluded summits was to rally the support of sympathetic and influential external actors such as the U.S., Japan, India and Australia to push for a binding CoC in the South China Sea and exert more pressure on Beijing against further military fortifications and adventurism in the disputed areas.

Refusing to stand idly by, the Philippine president reiterated his concerns in an intervention during the ASEAN+India Summit, emphasising India’s stake in ensuring regional maritime security. “Since a great deal of our (ASEAN and India) trade and resources flow through our seas, the Philippines views that ASEAN and India will mutually benefit from jointly addressing threats to maritime stability through peaceful means in accordance with international law,” Aquino stated.

During the ASEAN+Japan Summit, Aquino underscored the common interest of both Japan and ASEAN states to uphold the rule of law vis-à-vis ongoing disputes by stating, “The Philippines will continue to uphold this principle in its engagement with ASEAN, Japan, and other stakeholders, as the region strives to resolve overlapping maritime claims.”

Foremost in his mind, Aquino also urged the U.S. to play a more active role to stave off rising Chinese assertiveness.

“Each one of our nations has a stake in the stability of Southeast Asia. The United States understands this and, for this reason, has chosen to work with us to ensure the peace and continuous advancement of our region,” Aquino said during the summit, prodding greater U.S. involvement. “While we are all aware that the U.S. does not take sides in disputes, they do have a strategic stake in the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

In a veiled criticism of China’s preference for a bilateral approach to the disputes, Aquino argued, “We have long said that if it’s a multilateral problem, you can’t have a bilateral solution.” Most interestingly, he also stated, “The ASEAN route is not the only route for us”, suggesting Manila’s possible recourse to greater military cooperation with the U.S. as well as other regional allies such as Australia and Japan, especially if the ASEAN continues to fail in providing a credible multilateral, rule-based approach to ongoing territorial conflicts.

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