ASEAN: A Diplomatic Dead End?

Tensions flared once again over the South China Sea at the recent ASEAN summit.

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.

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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.