The world’s leaders can’t seem to escape the thorny issue of how to resolve the territorial disputes between China and its neighbors. At both September’s UN General Assembly in New York and the annual APEC summit, leaders couldn’t escape either venue without discussion of Asia’s contested waters.
What is evident from these meetings is that nearly all of the countries involved prefer to resolve the territorial disputes internationally, with the aid of multilateral institutions.
But the notable exception is China. At the UN, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized his country’s preference for bilateral resolution, “through negotiation and consultation with countries directly involved.” China’s emphasis on bilateral relationships is evident across the region, in countries like Cambodia and Myanmar, where large-scale Chinese infrastructure projects are evident. But China’s path has only divided Southeast Asian states and hindered progress in moving forward with a framework within ASEAN for resolving the disputes.
The counterpoint to this strategy comes from smaller states in Southeast Asia, whose histories with the rising superpower are mixed at best. At the UN, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung stated, “Viet Nam consistently pursues a policy of peaceful resolution of disputes to defend its legitimate interests and fully respect those of the global community, in accordance with international law.”
Meanwhile Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, referencing his country’s ongoing territorial dispute with China, reiterated that “’recourse to judicial settlement of legal disputes should not be considered an unfriendly act between States.” As with Vietnam, he said that such action “is anchored in international law.”
But Barack Obama’s cancelled Asia trip spells trouble for the internationalization of the dispute, and hence the aims of most Southeast Asian states. It is the latest sign that the U.S. may not hold the staying power to support smaller Asian economies across a range of challenges from poverty reduction to international security.
Since the U.S. “strategic pivot” to Asia was announced in 2011, several East Asian countries cautiously welcomed America’s renewed commitment in the region. But initial optimism is being tempered by a realization that Asia’s developing economies are expected to pick themselves up by their bootstraps.
Whether in the areas of international aid and development assistance, or international security, the message from Washington has been one of promise tempered with a reluctance to overcommit to providing financial and military assistance. Now, because of its domestic upheaval, the U.S. is not in a position to increase support, even if that is what its leaders intended.
Evidencing the seriousness of the trip’s cancellation, the story has grabbed headlines in newspapers across Asia, and critical comments from the region’s leaders. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for instance, said the shutdown was “not helpful” and characterized Obama’s cancellation as a “great disappointment.”
Still, even at the best of times, at the pinnacle of America’s Asian engagement in the last few years, America’s policy has been contradictory. The U.S., while still supportive of developing a regional Code of Conduct to resolve the disputes, also has treaty allies in the region. It has never been clear what lengths the U.S. will go to support these allies. While on the one hand the U.S. has sought to increase defense cooperation, the U.S. has always been quick to say that it wouldn’t take sides on the sovereignty issues.
And while the U.S. has been committed to the establishment of a rules based international order, it is also yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), one of the key multilateral mechanisms hoped to provide a legal basis for solving these disputes.
All of this links closely to the Millennium Development Goals, and poverty reduction strategies, the central theme of the UN General Debate this year. Increasingly international donors have an expectation that Asia’s developing economies sort out their development strategies individually, rather than with international assistance. So-called “middle-income status,” which a number of Southeast Asian economies have achieved in recent years, does not mean that poverty has been eradicated within those countries. In fact, the uneven growth witnessed by Asia’s economies means that millions have been left out of the “Asian economic miracle.”
Thus, while these countries have seen growth, limited services have led them to cling to inward looking nationalist policies, exacerbating the present territorial conflict. The international community – specifically some non-Asian countries – has scaled back support for these economies, asking them to find development solutions on their own, which has resulted in a relaxation of the global standards that the MDGs are aimed at addressing.
Many of Asia’s governments are accused of being insufficiently democratic. The onus is now on America to role model effective democratic governance, given its belief in the long-term success of democracy in contributing to world peace. If this doesn’t occur, the democratic processes that facilitate forums for resolving key international challenges, like those in the South China Sea, may end up in gridlock and thereby seriously undermine their efficacy.
Andrew Billo is an Associate Fellow at the Asia Society.