China is usually typecast as the villain in the Asia-Pacific’s security dramas, and the recent confrontations in the South China Sea have been no different. The narrative has revolved around an aggressive China that has recklessly pushed the envelope of its territorial claims, steamrolling its weaker neighbours and jeopardising regional stability.
China’s actions and miscommunications have indeed contributed to the growing discordance of the security mood music, with the Philippines and Vietnam in particular genuinely alarmed about the assertiveness – veering perhaps between aggression and plain clumsiness – which China has been displaying in the disputed zones of the South China Sea.
But that’s only part of the story: Asia’s maritime difficulties are above all a collective failure. Between them, the region’s stakeholders have succeeded only in exposing the dangerous weakness of their multilateral institutions. These platforms, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) among them, are struggling to regulate the behaviour of their members and develop meaningful controls over the region’s security. This is because competing interests, rather than common purpose, continue to dominate regional thinking, even within ASEAN. It can also partly be explained by the enduring presence of one very successful, unilateral security institution in the Pacific region: the United States military.
The crisis of Asian multilateralism was played out very publicly at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, which was held in Singapore in early June and where the region’s maritime disputes – and how best to resolve them – were one of two topics that dominated the agenda. The other, very much related to the first, was whether the United States would sustain its military presence in Asia.
Asian leaders seem to have given up trying to create new institutions to fix these problems. The ideas of the last two to do so, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, fizzled along with their premierships and were quietly dropped by their respective governments. ‘There is no appetite for new institutions,’ says Tim Huxley, the director of IISS-Asia, the think tank that organises the Dialogue. ‘What we heard was a reassertion of interest in using the existing, ASEAN-centric institutions, but with that come really quite major problems for the region.’
The biggest challenge of ASEAN-centrism is that ASEAN itself has been fractious in recent months, as a result of both the ongoing Thai-Cambodian confrontation and also of individual members pursuing their conflicting claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam, for example, has seized on the maritime dispute as enthusiastically as Bangkok has played up its skirmishes with the Cambodians in order draw some of the heat away from domestic troubles (in Hanoi’s case, these are economic). Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told The Diplomat in Singapore ‘that ASEAN, despite all the security challenges it has gone through, has consistently progressed towards achieving the status of ASEAN Political-Security by Community 2015.’