ASEAN: A Diplomatic Dead End?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

ASEAN: A Diplomatic Dead End?


The President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, has a reputation for being a lackadaisical leader in his home country, where Filipinos have embraced the term “noynoy-ing” – coined from Aquino’s nickname, Noynoy – as an irreverent phrase for “doing nothing.”

Perhaps it was Aquino’s sleepy reputation that this week emboldened the Cambodian leadership to push an exclusive agenda at the end of an ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting.  Cambodia, as the ASEAN chair, was hosting the event when its officials announced that ASEAN had reached a consensus on an important aspect of the South China Sea disputes involving China and several ASEAN members, namely that the interested parties would not seek to internationalize their disagreements. It sounded fine, except for one small problem: The consensus was a fiction.

Noynoy, to his credit, refused to noynoy. The following day he interrupted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to insist that no such consensus had been reached, and that, contrary to the Cambodian position, the Philippines – no doubt like other ASEAN members – reserved the right to deal with sovereignty issues in whatever way it pleased.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, when asked about these events, repeated the Cambodian formula that ASEAN had reached this non-existent consensus. It was clumsy, and obvious. China and Cambodia had attempted to impose on the other ASEAN leaders the conclusion they wanted, rather than the one which really existed, regarding the non-internationalization of disputes. They had twisted the language of diplomacy, changing the meaning of “consensus” from “what we all think” to “what we’re telling you to think.”  And the Philippines called them on it.

The ASEAN members with a stake in the South China Sea are now under no misapprehension that ASEAN is a diplomatic dead end; even now that Cambodia has handed over the chair of the association to Brunei for 2013. Now, at last, they have done what they should have done a long time ago: Ditched the ASEAN formalities, so far as the South China Sea issue is concerned, and gone their own way.

On December 12, representatives of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – the four countries that dispute South China Sea possessions with Beijing – will meet in Manila to discuss the way forward. Originally, handling these matters collectively through ASEAN made good sense, since in theory it would have given the smaller Southeast Asian countries strength in numbers when negotiating with China, the regional powerhouse. But then it became clear that the countries with no direct stake in the South China Sea would not back them up as fellow ASEAN members. Indeed, some, notably Cambodia, would actively side with China against the other southeast stakeholders, even though that meant flouting the non-interventionist ASEAN Way.

The South China Sea disputes have always been complicated by the confusing maze of claims and counterclaims that have made them seem practically unsolvable. At the Manila meeting, the four countries could start to cut through all that. They should start negotiations with a view to settling their disputes amongst themselves, to produce a situation in which only one Southeast Asian country disputes territory with China.

They could then set up a new regional body to negotiate with China and to deal collectively with this and other issues of concern in the interests of the member states. They could call it the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It sounds like something the region could use.

February 10, 2013 at 10:56

That pro-PRC troll, John Chan, is everywhere these days. I sure hope the PRC government is paying him enough for his efforts.

November 30, 2012 at 17:56

November 29, 2012 at 9:36 am

SCS disputes are not regional issues. Disputes are limited to some countries, not to the whole bloc. Therefore the individual states with overlapping claims will have to negotiate with their counter-parties to prevent conflicts."
Actually you are incorrect due to the fact that China made it a regional issue when it claimed the entirety of the South China Sea.
Also Asean tends to speak as a whole, but if Cambodia needs to be treate as a province of China then I guess it could be treated so.


November 29, 2012 at 09:36

SCS disputes are not regional issues.  Disputes are limited to some countries, not to the whole bloc.  Therefore the individual states with overlapping claims will have to negotiate with their counter-parties to prevent conflicts.

Joe Black
November 28, 2012 at 18:36

@Vic – LMAO get your facts right… fyi Philippine economy has the 2nd strongest growth in Asia, growth at 7.1%  3rd quarter of this year, after China. The good thing about Philippines is its economy does not rely on China for export. In fact, Philippines will be taking away more businesses from China as Japanese companies has started unwinding their operations in China and is moving back to ASEAN countries minus Cambodia.

Leonard R.
November 28, 2012 at 13:18

Aren't all disputes between two or more nations, 'international'? The bungled consensus non-announcement smacks of 'logic with Chinese characteristics'. It's one more Chinese foreign policy train wreck. 
ASEAN can make a lot of progress on trade and visas. It may never be a potent political or diplomatic force in comparison to the EU, for example.
However, the EU has NATO. Maybe ASEAN members can begin to form their own defense alliances separate from ASEAN. It doesn't need to involve all ASEAN members. Not all EU members are in NATO. And it doesn't have to be limited to ASEAN members either. NATO has members who are not in the EU. 
Maybe the time has come for southeast Asian nations to start cooperating on defense. NATO might be a better example for them to follow than the EU. 

November 28, 2012 at 07:17

This could work, if they resolve individual differences and work on the dispute as a collective and with UN and US backing then it is highly plausible. They would actually have enough leeway to negotiate with China at equal terms.

November 28, 2012 at 07:15

I did not Vote for PNoy yet I would like to congratulate him on smacking the face of Cambodia claiming that the entire ASEAN agree's when there was no such vote in regards to that issue. Does Cambodia thinks that ASEAN Works the same as their country? 

November 28, 2012 at 07:12

Is this a revival of SEATO? I hope something like SEATO would be revived.

November 28, 2012 at 07:09

Keep on dreaming if the Philippines will surrender its soveregnty to China without a fight. Countless Filipino's already died against those who seek to impose their yolk on the Philippines. NEVER AGAIN!!!

November 27, 2012 at 15:33

Vic wrote: " is not realistic to bring non-claimant countries and claimant countries together as a group to counter China in the South China Sea disputes"
I am not sure I understand your logic.
Its not fair for Asean nations to make a joint agreement to discusss regional issues with China, but it is ok for China with a 1.4 billion population and a huge military to make agreements with individual small countries?
You dont believe that Chinas strenght doesn't wiegh negotiations in Chinas favour?

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