A US-ASEAN South China Sea Failure at Sunnylands?
Image Credit: @NajibRazak

A US-ASEAN South China Sea Failure at Sunnylands?


Following the end of the historic U.S.-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands, a number of accounts have criticized Washington and Southeast Asian states for their weak stance on the South China Sea issue. In particular, much has been made of the fact that the U.S.-ASEAN joint statement issued after the summit did not contain a specific reference to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

This is hardly the first time an ASEAN-related meeting has been criticized for this, and it will not be the last. And to be sure, getting ASEAN to be more forward-leaning on the South China Sea is a frustrating process well-known to U.S. and Southeast Asian diplomats. But to those who have been following the summit’s planning and execution closely, the suggestion that the United States and ASEAN have somehow failed on the South China Sea issue at Sunnylands is seriously misguided. It reflects an ignorance of how ASEAN and the United States deal with the South China Sea issue, what both sides expected going into Sunnylands, what was eventually achieved, and how the outcome fits in with other ongoing developments.

First, the extent of agreement on the South China Sea question ought to be judged on the basis of what ASEAN is rather than what it ought to be, since that is the reality that policymakers have to contend with. For various reasons, including the fact that ASEAN operates on the basis of consensus and only four of the ten members have claims in the South China Sea disputes, the organization has generally tended to adopt a lowest common denominator approach to the issue. With such a diversity of views – from the Philippines, a claimant which filed a case against China at an international tribunal, to Cambodia, a not-so-interested party and close Chinese partner which infamously blocked the issuance of a joint communique over mention of the South China Sea issue – ASEAN’s statements as a bloc have not traditionally singled out China directly irrespective of Beijing’s actions, and it is rather unrealistic to expect that to change anytime soon (See: “Does ASEAN Have a South China Sea Position?”).

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While ASEAN’s critics have continued to rail on the organization for its weakness on the South China Sea question, Southeast Asian and U.S. policymakers have long internalized the structural issues that prevent a stronger ASEAN position. That explains why they tend to push only for realistic agreements on broad principles within ASEAN as a grouping to uphold basic regional cohesiveness but also pursue more forward-leaning steps on a bilateral or unilateral basis. For instance, the Philippines has independently pursued a case against China with the United Nations arbitral tribunal at The Hague, and the United States has been quietly nudging individual Southeast Asian states to support Manila’s efforts outside of ASEAN, given the unwillingness of some of the grouping’s members to do so within the group (“Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?”).

Hence, while some parties naturally continue to push for more and others want less each time the issue is raised, realistically U.S. and ASEAN officials generally only expect broad agreement on a set of principles that claimants (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam), interested parties (Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand) and not-so-interested parties (Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) could all adhere to. The true test of whether ASEAN has remained united on the South China Sea issue is thus not whether it suddenly achieves an unprecedented and unrealistic level of cohesion like calling out China in a joint communique, but if it manages to maintain agreement on basic principles that govern the issue in spite of any divisions within the grouping.

If one looks at the paragraphs in the U.S.-ASEAN joint statement issued at Sunnylands relating to the South China Sea, that modest but realistic expectation – broad agreement on a set of principles – was met. The paragraphs in the joint statement relating to the South China Sea articulate all the relevant principles, including the peaceful resolution of disputes, respect for international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight. This at the very least constitutes par for the course rather than a failure of any kind.

Second, while the language in the joint statement at Sunnylands may seem vague, it is important to contextualize what was agreed on the South China Sea question both in terms of the broader approach the Obama administration has adopted towards it as well as the nature of the summit itself.

With respect to the former, while some have tended to get lost in the weeds, barring a late start, the Obama administration has successfully framed the U.S. and ASEAN’s role in the South China Sea issue as not being just about China or how claims are resolved, but preserving the rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific (See: “Why the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Matters“). That is, what both sides have in common is upholding a set of common rules that applies to all countries big and small, whether it is preserving principles governing how vessels can navigate at sea in the case of the South China Sea in the security realm; pursuing policies that lead to openness and competitiveness in the economic sphere; or promoting the rule of law, good governance, accountable institutions and universal human rights. That makes sense rhetorically even if the reality in Southeast Asia is far from the ideal suggested in those principles.

It is through this prism – a shared commitment by both sides to the regional rules-based order – that U.S. officials approached the South China Sea question in the context of the broader joint statement at Sunnylands. As one official told The Diplomat ahead of the summit, the idea was to chart out a set of agreed principles on maritime security between the United States and ASEAN in full recognition of divisions between the bloc as well as the complexities of the South China Sea issue. That would seem to make sense – if two parties are claiming that their actions are motivated by a joint commitment to certain principles rather than targeting a single country, it is worth spelling out those principles. By contrast, singling out China would only seem to undermine the case being made that this is about principles rather than a particular nation.

The nature of the summit also matters for how one evaluates the outcome on the South China Sea question. Even before Sunnylands, U.S. officials had tirelessly pointed out that it would be unlike regular U.S.-ASEAN meetings, with a focus more on candid discussion among leaders rather than carefully prepared statements and tightly negotiated deliverables. Officials had also privately and publicly admitted that the outcome document would be more like a broad, short statement of principles rather than a traditional joint communique issued at ASEAN meetings or the more detailed, 14-page long U.S.-ASEAN plan of action to implement the strategic partnership issued last November (See: “US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit: What to Expect”). Given that the outcome document was much like what the Obama administration had envisioned even before the summit, it is bizarre to label it a failure.

Furthermore, owing to the format of the summit which U.S. officials had detailed, it is rather myopic to judge what was agreed on the South China Sea by just the joint statement alone. Accounts by those present suggest that the leaders naturally dived into much more detail in the closed door session on security issues on the second day of the summit, including on China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. As with most summits, what is said behind closed doors is as important, if not more, than what is written in a joint statement.

Third, even given these limitations and realities, judged both qualitatively and quantitatively, the specifics of what was achieved in terms of language on the South China Sea question are hardly inconsequential. Quantitatively, three of the 17 paragraphs of the entire U.S.-ASEAN joint statement addressed maritime security, more than any other single issue (See: “What Did the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Achieve?”). Most other fields either got one paragraph or were squeezed in among a laundry list of other related priorities. For those used to parsing ASEAN statements, this is hardly inconsequential and demonstrates the concern both the United States and Southeast Asian states place on the issue.

Beyond numbers, the qualitative aspect of what was achieved is also notable relative to the past. For instance, while the United States and more forward-leaning ASEAN members may not have been able to get full-throated and full support within the grouping for the Philippines’ ongoing case against China, the mention in paragraph seve of “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes without resorting to the threat or use of force” is the closest possible language to asking Beijing to abide by the court’s decision expected in May. The presence of such language this time around constitutes relative progress – this was missing from the joint statement on the U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership issued last November (See: “US, ASEAN to Ink New Strategic Partnership”).

Similarly, in paragraph eight, “non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities” was added this time to the familiar refrain about the respect for freedom of navigation and overflight. The phrase “non-militarization” was absent in similar U.S.-ASEAN statements issued in November. Its inclusion this time around reflects both growing concerns about China’s behavior in this regard as well as successful efforts by the United States and some forward-leaning ASEAN countries in translating a commitment made by Chinese president Xi Jinping last year into a clear, joint call to get Beijing to do as it had pledged (though, true to form, China appears to have once again found a way to rhetorically finesse its way out of this glaring contradiction).

To be sure, U.S. officials would prefer an even stronger stance by ASEAN on the South China Sea. The point here is simply that what was achieved within constraints was still quite significant.

Fourth and lastly, irrespective of what was said or not said about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, Beijing’s continued pursuit of destabilizing, unilateral actions there continue to speak for themselves. As it is, beyond joint statements, close regional observers know that it is difficult to arrive at a Southeast Asian capital today where there is not some degree of concern about China’s South China Sea behavior and its implications for regional stability, international law, and U.S.-China relations. With news this week that China has set up missile defense systems in the Paracel Islands – effectively beginning the militarization Xi had pledged not to undertake – those concerns will grow graver still. And while they may not manifest themselves in the boilerplate joint statements that are usually issued following ASEAN meetings, they will likely continue to do so in other more meaningful ways, including stronger security ties between Washington and individual Southeast Asian states as well as a louder diplomatic campaign against China following the court’s decision in May.

It is ultimately those clearer, more consequential signs – rather than communiques at multilateral meetings – that we should be looking at for indicators of the regional response to Beijing’s South China Sea assertiveness. Because contrary to the suggestion that the United States and ASEAN are failing on the South China Sea issue, it is Beijing’s determination to coerce other claimants and violate international law to secure its interests (while blaming the United States and Southeast Asian states for responding in any way) that seems to be the flawed, shortsighted approach that sacrifices long-term goodwill for short-term gain. For all China’s suggestions that the United States is seeking to contain it, with its own assertiveness abroad, it won’t be long before Beijing does a pretty good job of that itself.

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