China’s Hollow South China Sea Consensus With ASEAN Laggards
An Indonesian Navy rigid-hull inflatable boat (far left) confronts a Chinese Coast Guard vessel near Natuna Island.
Image Credit: KKP

China’s Hollow South China Sea Consensus With ASEAN Laggards

 
 

Over the weekend, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi announced in Laos that Beijing had reached a four-point ‘consensus’ with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos on the South China Sea (See: “What’s Behind China’s New South China Sea Consensus With Three ASEAN States“). While the diplomatic move is notable given the upcoming verdict on the Philippines’ South China Sea case against Beijing, a closer look at the substance of the so-called consensus reveals that it is actually quite hollow even by Chinese standards.

According to Xinhua, Wang said that the four countries agreed that the South China Sea disputes is not an issue between China and ASEAN as a whole and thus should not affect the development of the ASEAN-China relationship. They also agreed on the right enjoyed by sovereign states to choose their own ways to solve disputes; that there should be no attempt to unilaterally impose an agenda on other countries; that territorial and maritime disputes should be resolved through consultations and negotiations by parties directly concerned; and that China and ASEAN should be able to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea through cooperation, with countries outside the region playing a constructive role in that regard.

The content of the four-point consensus is weak, even by Chinese standards. At first glance, it appears that the general thrust of the statement reflects China’s longstanding position that the South China Sea is not an issue between China and ASEAN as a regional grouping and should largely be settled bilaterally between Beijing and claimant states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam rather than with ASEAN as a whole or the interference of other external parties. As I wrote in an earlier piece, that Chinese position was most recently manifested in the ‘dual-track approach’ Beijing has been advocating since at least 2014 (See: “The Challenge to China’s South China Sea Approach”).

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But a closer look at the language reveals that the four-point consensus is actually a dilution of the Chinese position. For instance, contrary to Beijing’s assertion that external parties should not interfere at all in the South China Sea disputes, the four-point consensus provides for a “constructive role” for countries outside the region, which would include the United States. Furthermore, sovereign states are said to enjoy their right “to choose their own ways to solve disputes.” Though this vague statement can be read in China’s favor in that it means that it does not have to participate in the Philippines’ South China Sea case if it does not want to, it also does not preclude Manila – or other ASEAN states for that matter – from pursuing the option of international arbitration even though Beijing has been vocal about its displeasure about this (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?”)..

While a consensus of any kind between countries is likely to lead to a dilution of initial individual positions, the fact that China had to give in on two key issues that regularly draw its ire – outside intervention in the South China Sea disputes and the option for claimants to pursue international arbitration– suggests that Beijing had trouble getting its way even with just three ASEAN countries usually relatively agreeable with China on this issue.  “If you look at the language of this so-called consensus, it’s really hard to call it some kind of diplomatic coup by Beijing even by its own standards,” an official from an ASEAN country which did not sign on to the four-point consensus told The Diplomat.

Second, the extent of ASEAN participation in the four-point consensus is further proof of its hollowness. Despite previous Chinese insistence that its ‘dual track approach’ had significant support within Southeast Asian circles, the fact that just three out of the ten countries endorsed the four-point consensus illustrates just how little backing it has in the region. For perspective, those three members – Brunei, Laos and Cambodia – none of which were the original five ASEAN countries, comprise less than four percent of the grouping’s population and total economic output. The list misses not only the key claimants in the South China Sea disputes like Vietnam and the Philippines, but also influential non-claimant states like Singapore or Indonesia, ASEAN’s most populous country whose economy comprises nearly half of the grouping’s economic output.

Furthermore, the fact that the countries involved already have positions quite close to that of China reveals that Beijing is more interested in demonstrating that it still has fringe support within ASEAN in spite of its South China Sea assertiveness rather than forging a genuine consensus with the majority of the grouping’s members which it has alienated. Cambodia and Laos, both non-claimants in the South China Sea disputes which have a strong economic dependence on Beijing, both are already known within ASEAN for their unwillingness to chastise China for its continued assertiveness, though the former tends to be more vocal while the latter prefers a lower profile. As for Brunei, though it is a claimant, does not occupy a single land feature and has already largely preferred to deal with the issue bilaterally. The exclusion of the three more consequential claimants – Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – is telling, especially since it is these countries, not Brunei, where issues like external interference and dispute resolution actually come into play.

To be sure, the hollowness of the statement’s substance does not mean one should just dismiss it altogether. As I indicated in an earlier piece, the move is just one part of Beijing’s diplomatic campaign to build up support ahead of the verdict on the Philippines’ South China Sea case. And even though that support is small, the role of these three states within ASEAN is not altogether insignificant. For instance, Laos is chairing the grouping this year, which gives it outsized influence in affecting how the South China Sea issue is discussed within ASEAN. To get a sense of how important this role can be, one just needs to look at Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship back in 2012. At that time, ASEAN failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its 45-year history due to disagreements over the South China Sea, with accounts by some suggesting that Cambodia was pressured by its largest trading partner and investor to shape the agenda which eventually led to the regional grouping’s unprecedented failure (See: “ASEAN’s Soul-Searching After Phnom Penh”).

That incident, along with China’s success in forging the four-point consensus this year, is part of a worrying trend where Beijing uses its growing regional economic might as leverage to extract diplomatic support and divide ASEAN. It is little coincidence that the four-point consensus was revealed after Wang’s three-nation Southeast Asia tour to the three very countries that were part of that understanding, or that each of those legs featured announcements on progress on existing or new Chinese initiatives in those states. Irrespective of the content or consequence of the individual campaigns China is nudging these Southeast Asian nations to be a part of, more generally Beijing appears to be seeking a divided ASEAN that comes increasingly under its economic control while it continues to builds up its military capabilities to ultimately get its way in the longer run. That should be a concern not only for Southeast Asia, but the world more generally as it seeks to deal with a rising China.

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