South China Sea Dispute Overshadows ASEAN Summit

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

South China Sea Dispute Overshadows ASEAN Summit

At a historic summit in Myanmar, the bloc’s leaders express concern over escalating tensions.

South China Sea Dispute Overshadows ASEAN Summit
Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The ongoing dispute over the South China Seas carried into the 24th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the Myanmar capital of Naypyitaw over the weekend as leaders from the 10-member nations uniformly expressed their concern over the escalating situation.

On May 1, the stand-off between Vietnam and China reached new heights after China moved a deep-water oil rig into an area near Paracel Islands, a territory claimed by Vietnam. There have since been several collisions between ships from the two sides, along with the use of water cannons. The broken glass from the ensuing attacks has injured at least six people, Vietnamese officials claim.

Since then, anti-China protests have gripped Vietnam, while officials accuse China of illegally drilling in their waters.

The recent escalation prompted ASEAN foreign ministers to issue a statement on Saturday calling on all involved parties to restrain themselves from a violent outbreak and follow the protocol of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

“ASEAN Foreign Ministers expressed their serious concerns over the on-going developments in the South China Sea, which have increased tensions in the area,” the statement reads.

“They urged all parties concerned, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including … to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area; and to resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force.”

The statement represents what experts believe is a bold first offering of a joint stance on the ongoing conflict on behalf of the entire ASEAN community, which comprises Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

“The statement by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers was issued as a standalone document and not buried in the longer summary of proceedings. This is significant,” Southeast Asia expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, Carl Thayer, told The Diplomat. “It highlights ASEAN unity on the fact that ongoing developments in the South China Sea are a source of serious concern because they have raised tensions.”

Vietnamese officials have reacted to last week’s development saying that restraints on continued provocation “have limits” as officials from Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affair’s claim that there are at least 60 ships, including military ships, escorting the oil rig.

Maritime tensions ahead of the ASEAN Summit were also driven by a separate incident in the South China Sea after the Philippines seized a Chinese fishing boat and its crew on May 6 off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands. The incident has drawn the ire of China, who is demanding the ship be released.

During the May 11 opening ceremony of the 24th ASEAN Summit, titled “Moving forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community,” Myanmar President Thein Sein said the high-ranking delegation would speak about regional problems, but did not refer to the South China Sea dispute directly.

“As we are building an ASEAN Community in the Global Community of Nations, regional and global issues of great concern to ASEAN will be extensively discussed among ourselves,” he said.

For Myanmar, which was hosting the ASEAN Summit for the first time in its 17 years as a member, the Summit was considered a test for the country, once the problem member of the regional bloc prior to its switch to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.

“Myanmar so far has acquitted itself quite well as ASEAN chair. It has come under intense Chinese pressure to toe the line on the South China Sea, but Myanmar – as ASEAN Chair – is acting according to the current consensus,” said Thayer, adding that additional efforts on the part of Myanmar to fall in line with ASEAN policy would be looked upon favorably in the West.

Trouble In Thailand

The maritime crisis in the South China seas was not the only regional development on the agenda of the two-day summit, however, as ASEAN leaders discussed the growing political turmoil in neighboring Thailand, following the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office last week.

On May 8, one day after the Thai Constitution Court ousted Ms. Shinawatra from her position after finding her guilty on abuse of power charges, the country’s anti-corruption commission handed the former prime minister an indictment that could see her impeached for her role in a rice subsidy scheme that resulted in the loss an estimated $4.4 billion in state money.

Political experts fear that the development could result in a renewed violent outbreak in Thailand as both pro- and anti-government protesters began marching in Bangkok over the weekend.

With demonstrators taking to the streets , ASEAN officials – accompanied by caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Phongthep Thepkanchana – in Naypyitaw called on officials in the Thai capital to continue dialogue and respect the rule of law in the wake of political instability.

“ASEAN Member States continue to follow closely the recent developments in the Kingdom of Thailand and emphasize their full support for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing challenge in the country through dialogue and in full respect of democratic principles and rule of law,” ASEAN foreign ministers said in a joint-statement on May 11.

“[They] expressed confidence in the resilience of the Thai nation to overcome the present difficulties and stand ready to extend all appropriate support based on the principles provided in its Charter,” it continued.

Economic Unity

While China territorial disputes and Thailand’s political problems set the tone for the historic summit, the delegation reaffirmed its commitment to establish the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) next year by pledging to expedite several initiatives including regional connectivity through the implementation of the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity.

“Such a link will spur trade, SME [small and medium enterprise] development and consequently, community empowerment in Southern Philippines and Sulawesi, opening the doors of opportunity for our peoples—and at the same time, providing a model for future initiatives to emulate and learn from,” Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, said during a speech on Sunday.

Nevertheless experts still question whether or not it is feasible that all the provisions of ASEAN’s various goals can be achieved in time for the looming January launch of the economic union.

“In our view, [the AEC] is going to happen. It may not be that everything happens on January, but the direction is there, the momentum is there,” said Chew Seng Kok, regional managing partner of law firm ZICOlaw.

(Additional reporting by Bridget Di Certo)

Philip Heijmans is a Yangon-based journalist.