The Laotian capital of Vientiane has this month played host to the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits, the 11th East Asia Summit (EAS), and associated meetings. Much of the focus has been on the issue of the South China Sea and ASEAN’s response.
In short, the ASEAN countries indicated, as they had done in the past, that they had reached something of a consensus on the issue of the South China Sea. To some, the bloc’s apparent eagerness to avoid confrontation appeared to mean it was bowing to China.
The ASEAN consensus is described in the chairman’s statement. In particular, ASEAN countries reaffirmed its compliance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international laws, the importance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), the implementation by China and ASEAN countries of the principles set out in the DOC, and ongoing work on the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). They also indicated that they “remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments” in the South China Sea.
However, the landmark arbitral award handed down in July 2016 by a United Nations arbitration tribunal was given no mention, either in the chairman’s statement or by any of the attending leaders, in the same way as it was avoided in the joint communiqué adopted by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in July 2015. Moreover, the meetings in Vientiane saw numerous occasions when friendly relationships between China and ASEAN were choreographed. The depth of these relations were confirmed, both in terms of security cooperation and economic cooperation: A joint statement was issued at the end of the ASEAN-China summit to commemorate the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue; the further deepening and expansion of mutually beneficial economic cooperation was confirmed, including production capacity cooperation; continued negotiations for adopting a COC were confirmed; and steps for easing tensions in the South China Sea were announced, including the establishment of a hotline among senior officials in response to maritime emergencies and the adoption of a Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea.
Some observers saw the results of the meetings in Vientiane as reflecting China’s conciliatory approach to ASEAN and its diplomatic success in dividing the bloc. Indeed, China had been pursuing a diplomatic approach of pressuring ASEAN countries to avoid confrontation on the issue of South China before the commencement of the meetings in Vientiane. And there is no question that Cambodia, the ASEAN member friendliest to Chinese interests in the South China Sea, has cast a shadow over the consensus-bound organization.
I would argue that rather than the success of Chinese diplomacy, the summit outcomes likely stem from the fact that ASEAN, as a grouping of smallish countries, has a good understanding of the reality of having China as a neighbor both now and in perpetuity. Indeed, one could very well argue that ASEAN countries won concessions from China, including the confirmation of further negotiations on COC, given that many of these countries do not wish to see a spike in tensions with China, despite their objections and concerns about the South China Sea issue. Every ASEAN country recognizes that coexistence with their giant neighbor is in their security and economic interests, but that it is not synonymous with being under China’s thumb. Even the United States adopts a mix of hardline and conciliatory actions toward China, as shown in its rigorous opposition to China’s expansion in the South China Sea on the one hand, and the continuation of strategic economic dialogue between the two countries on the other.
Even if ASEAN countries do give consideration to China, their response to the issue of the South China Sea has been changing in recent years. Not only those countries that are in direct dispute with China but the majority of ASEAN members, including Indonesia and Singapore – previously seen as part of the neutral group – are becoming increasingly concerned about China’s stance regarding the South China Sea. This is reflected in the representation “remain seriously concerned about recent and ongoing developments” in the document adopted by the ASEAN counties. We might also recall that in June 2016, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi found himself alone at a press conference after the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming, because ASEAN-China negotiations regarding the South China Sea had collapsed.
ASEAN countries have traditionally avoided both conflict or excessively close ties with any specific great powers , with a hedging strategy of going broad rather than deep. The most extreme recent example of this is the diplomacy of the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. The Duterte administration tends to be compared to the former Aquino administration and to be considered anti-American and pro-Chinese, but Duterte describes himself as pro-Philippines. The Philippines is in fact developing a diplomatic approach typical of a smaller country hoping to maximize its benefit from multiple sources, placing itself among the major powers but keeping an arms-length distance from any one country. For instance, Duterte administration demands that due regard be given to the tribunal’s ruling as a precondition for discussions on territorial disputes with China, which means that the administration is not simply flirting with China. Admittedly, though, Manila may be advised to pay serious attention to the negative implications of Duterte’s reputation in the West over human rights issues, where he is increasingly been seen as excessively anti-American and anti-European.
ASEAN countries may also be stalling for time, waiting for China’s domestic situation to change, while exercising their traditional hedging strategies. China’s hardline position on issues of sovereignty in the South China Sea and other locations are seen as reflecting a power struggle within China, a situation over which ASEAN and other countries have no direct control.
ASEAN countries have faced various crises in their recent history, such as the communization of the Indochina Peninsula, the end of the Cold War, and the Asian currency crisis, and each time the doomsayers have been vocal. Yet the region has managed to overcome the challenges. Now with the rise of China, and its attendant geopolitical fallout, what new opportunities will ASEAN find? The summits in Vientiane offered some insights into their strategy, but the results remain to be seen.
Mie Oba is a Professor at the Tokyo University of Science.