Leaders from the ten member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet in in Napyidaw, Myanmar this weekend. The meeting is historic due to its venue: Myanmar is hosting an ASEAN summit for the first time. However, the meeting unfortunately coincides with two major maritime disputes between two ASEAN states and China. Vietnam’s tryst with China over an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands and the Philippines detention of a Chinese fishing boat in the disputed waters of the Second Thomas Shoal will ensure that managing maritime disputes with China will top the agenda as the leaders meet in Napyidaw.
The timing of the summit could encourage both the Philippines and Vietnam, and the remaining ASEAN countries, to revisit the regional organization’s bid to develop effective multilateral means to manage the various disputes in the South China Sea. It is highly unlikely that the leaders would convene in Napyidaw and issue any sort of joint condemnation of Chinese behavior (not in the least owing to the host country’s complicated relationship with China). Instead, ASEAN leaders are likely to do what they have done in the past: emphasize international law, encourage restraint, and call for diplomacy.
More specifically, the timing of the summit with these two acute flare-ups in the South China Sea should be a rude reminder that ASEAN should double-down on its efforts to set in stone a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea. Without any such concerted effort, China is unlikely to reconsider its behavior in the South China Sea. As Flashpoints blogger Carl Thayer told the South China Morning Post, “Asean protestations will not move China one inch.”
The prospects for this summit leading to a breakthrough on a code of conduct are slim. The watershed document in this area, the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed between all the ASEAN states and China, is proving insufficient in managing contemporary tensions. As Malcolm Cook notes for the Lowy Interpreter, the 2014 summit will really test the mettle and conviction of ASEAN states to make good on their intention to enforce the 2002 Declaration. Chinese action in recent weeks, both against Vietnam and the Philippines, violates the declaration.
One of the worse potential outcomes of this weekend’s summit is that ASEAN leaders will leave Napyidaw having said or done nothing about Chinese behavior in the South China Sea or a code of conduct. Implicitly, such a result would expose the diplomatic fault-lines present within the 10-member association. Both Manila and Hanoi will be vocal in their pursuit of at least a joint statement on the South China Sea. Filipino Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles C. Jose told The Wall Street Journal that he expects ASEAN to reiterate its “grave concern over the recent developments in the South China Sea, as well as Asean’s strong resolve to uphold the rule of law.”
ASEAN leaders themselves remain divided over the urgency they ascribe to the China issue and the policies they would like to pursue to resolve South China Sea disputes. In particular, given that China is a major trade partner for each state in the region, the countries without disputes with China are not eager to participate in an inflammatory statement against China given the risk of damaging their political and economic relationships with Beijing. China’s approach of avoiding multilateral forums for addressing maritime disputes has worked to the extent that it has paralyzed ASEAN’s ability to respond in unison to China’s assertion of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Indeed the July 2012 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Cambodia offers a stark reminder of what disunity can look like within the association.
For Myanmar, the historic occasion of hosting its first ASEAN Summit and joining the comity of Southeast Asian nations as a state in transition will likely be overshadowed by a fixation on China. Although Myanmar’s reforms under the leadership of Thein Sein has reduced its dependence on China, it maintains cordial relations with Beijing and is unlikely to risk this over South China Sea maritime disputes.