Predictable lack of progress on the South China Sea

The language of cooperation might just be a cordial façade. AAP/Office of the Prime Minister

As expected, the dispute over the South China Sea was the most contentious issue at this week’s ASEAN meeting and East Asia Summit. Multilateral dialogue was tense, and ASEAN member states disagreed on the content of their post-meeting declarations.

Long-term observers of the South China Sea issue did not expect much progress – in particular because Cambodia, a close China ally, is currently ASEAN Chair. Cambodia enjoys investment, export markets, and economic aid from China. So it was very unlikely that Prime Minister Hun Sen was going to put real pressure on China to ease its sovereignty claims to the islands and shoals of the resource-rich sea.

On paper, it appeared that the issue had been addressed. The Joint Statement of the 15th ASEAN-China Summit focused on the 10th Anniversary of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). It “reaffirmed” the DOC as a “milestone document which embodies the collective commitment of ASEAN Member States and China to promote peace, stability and mutual trust in the South China Sea”. These sentiments were echoed in the Chairman’s Statement of the 21st ASEAN Summit, which asserted that ASEAN members were committed to dispute resolution and exercising self-restraint.

While this seems like the language of cooperation, the DOC amounts to a cordial façade behind which competing territorial claims by China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN states (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) continue to stymie productive bilateral and multilateral relationships. ASEAN Summits are notoriously opaque, with only carefully scripted statements released to the public and the “ASEAN Way” of consultation and consensus underpinning dialogue. The story behind these statements is more conflicted.

In particular, Cambodia tried to push for a declaration by ASEAN leaders stating that they had agreed “not to internationalise the issue” of the South China Sea. This presumably reflects China’s desire to constrain the issue to bilateral talks, rather than multilateral fora such as the ASEAN meetings. But at least five other ASEAN states objected to this declaration, and President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines publicly rebuked Hun Sen.

Hun Sen shut down discussion on the South China Sea a number of times, creating tensions with fellow ASEAN member states. The Chair is supposed to represent ASEAN states’ collective interests, rather than protect those of an external power. But the events this week remind us of a curious characteristic of ASEAN: most member states still engage in more trade with countries outside the region than with each other. And strong trade relationships lead to alliances on territorial and security matters – particularly when a trade partner is on track to become the world’s biggest economy.

The Chairman’s Statement does not mention the South China Sea issue. Washington says it takes no sides but has urged China to work towards a new code of conduct. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concerns about the freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most important maritime regions.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard echoed the US, saying that Australia is not taking sides but wants to see a peaceful resolution to the disputes. These leaders have been encouraging a multilateral solution to the various disputes. But we haven’t seen signs that this is imminent. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said: “China’s act of defending its sovereignty is necessary and legitimate”.

Given Brunei will be the next East Asia Summit Chair, perhaps the ASEAN claimants will have more of a voice in 2013. But it is probably the case, particularly given China’s reluctance to engage in the South China Sea issue in multilateral settings, that if any progress occurs, it will take place through bilateral agreements between China and individual claimants.

It is disappointing that the South China Sea matter is distracting from other concerns that affect people’s daily lives, such as poverty, development, and human rights. For example, this week the ASEAN leaders also signed the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, but officials and observers have been less focused than they could be on debating what the declaration means and how it might be made more meaningful over time.

It has also taken attention from developments in Myanmar, and how ASEAN member states should respond to the millions of displaced persons and refugees in the region. Such matters are generally constrained in official discourse, given the ASEAN norm of non-interference; however, they have no hope when old-school territorial disputes dominate the agenda.