ASEAN at a Crossroads

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ASEAN at a Crossroads

Disagreements once again over the South China Sea have dominated another ASEAN summit. Is there a path forward?

The 7th East Asia Summit (EAS) held last week was notable for a number of reasons, including the launching of a new regional free trade agreement and the introduction of several U.S. proposals on energy and maritime security. But the elephant in the room once again was the South China Sea (SCS) and disagreements among ASEAN countries stoked in part by China.   

Just over four months ago, ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement at its foreign minister’s meeting for the first time because host nation, Cambodia, insisted that language on the SCS should not even be mentioned. Many suspected that China had used its economic leverage on Cambodia to ensure ASEAN remained divided on the issue, and a few reports even suggested Cambodian officials had shared drafts of the statement with Chinese interlocutors. 

Those who were perturbed by those developments are unlikely find any relief from developments of the past week. This time, at the ASEAN Summit, Cambodia tried to force through the idea that ASEAN leaders had come to a consensus “that they will not internationalize the South China Sea issue from now on”, in the words of Foreign Ministry official Kao Kim Hourn. The trouble is that the language, which was strikingly similar to Chinese mantras, did not reflect what was agreed upon. At least five ASEAN countries objected and Cambodia was eventually forced to remove the controversial language from the final declaration. The Philippines was particularly vexed, with President Benigno Aquino openly rebuking Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario insisting that there was an attempt to translate statements “into a consensus without our consent”.

While Cambodia was attempting to dilute ASEAN’s consensus on the SCS, China was seeking to downplay the issue within the EAS’ multilateral setting. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao repeated the all-too-familiar Chinese assertion that territorial disputes should not be discussed at multilateral events but bilaterally between China and each of the ASEAN claimant states. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang and Chinese envoys also repeatedly attempted to sidestep the issue, saying that it should not be a “stumbling block” in ASEAN-China relations and that the main focus of the EAS should be greater economic cooperation amid the international financial crisis. ASEAN had in fact agreed to formally ask China to start talks on a code of conduct (CoC) on the SCS before the EAS had begun, according to outgoing ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, but Premier Wen played down the need for urgent action on the issue. “On the ASEAN side, we are ready, willing and very much committed, but it takes two to tango”, Pitsuwan said.

Given that tensions over the SCS have dominated two rounds of meetings this year, how can ASEAN ensure that this will not happen again next year? The Philippines, twice bitten and thrice shy, announced after the EAS that it will host a meeting in Manila on December 12 with fellow claimants Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. The four countries should use this as an opportunity to coordinate strategies on how to best advance their claims to China in a more unified way. One way to do so would be to make their claims explicit by codifying them in domestic legislation and multilateral frameworks in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), followed by a process where stakeholders clarify convergences and divergences. Only by being clear about their own claims can ASEAN states prevent China from exploiting divisions and ambiguities that exist within the bloc in future summits or dealings. That will also help facilitate negotiations on the CoC between ASEAN states and China.

Furthermore, ASEAN countries should continue to engage with next year’s ASEAN chair (and SCS claimant) Brunei on how it plans on handling the SCS issue in multilateral forums as appropriate. Brunei has traditionally preferred a low-key approach in dealing with contentious issues like the SCS, exemplified during ASEAN deliberations in July this year when its delegation simply said it would be “guided by” the decision of the ASEAN chair, as opposed to other claimants who insisted on a reference to the dispute in the joint communique. In 2013, the government in Bandar Seri Begawan will no longer have the luxury of simply deferring to other countries or remaining neutral as ASEAN chair. If Brunei needs any advice or guidance on tackling divisive issues, the organization’s more experienced members should be prepared to provide it.

Lastly, ASEAN states should not give in to intimidation by China on the SCS. Beijing has used such tactics in the past with claimant states, with its China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) calling for foreign oil and gas companies to explore nine blocks in disputed waters in violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and its quarantine of imported tropical fruit from the Philippines after saber-rattling in the Scarborough Shoal. A new wave of intimidation appears to be taking shape just a few days after China downplayed territorial disputes at the EAS, with Beijing releasing fresh passports containing a map of China which includes parts of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and others as well as disputed territory on the Indian border. Asian countries have rightly expressed outrage at the move and have responded by refusing to stamp them or drawing up their own maps. It is important that these countries continue to register their official protests in this manner in case Beijing tries to assert later on that stamping the passports could be regarded as effectively endorsing its claims.

Cambodia’s chairmanship this year has shown ASEAN that it is only as strong as its weakest link. In order to prevent outside actors from exploiting divisions within the bloc, ASEAN states must redouble their efforts at unifying their positions where they should and taking a clear stand where they must. Only then can the bloc continue to effectively occupy the driver’s seat in pushing for greater regional integration in the Asia-Pacific. 

Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. You can read his blog The Asianist at and follow him on Twitter at @TheAsianist.