Four claimants in the disputed South China Sea are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations: the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam. Despite this, in its countless meetings year-round, Asean has issued nothing but vapid, hollow and repetitive statements on China’s continued expansionism and militarisation in the disputed area.
One reason for this toothlessness is that any statement issued by Asean must be agreed to in full. If any member objects, it is rejected or revised.
But the bigger reason is that some Asean members – Laos, Cambodia and now the Philippines – are beholden to Beijing because of largesse they have received from China.
After a July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that junked China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea and recognised Philippine sovereignty over the Kalayaan Islands – part of the Spratly group – Manila could have led in calling for a more assertive Asean stance against expansionist China’s threat to regional stability.
But President Rodrigo Duterte rejected that move and instead shelved the arbitral ruling in favour of wider economic collaboration with China. Beijing has since pledged $4.4 billion (Bt138 billion) in funding to finance 12 huge infrastructure projects in the Philippines. This is on top of the outright grant of Bt2.2 billion for the construction of two Pasig River bridges in Manila and drug rehabilitation centres on the southern island of Mindanao.
Clearly these are the reasons why the Philippines has kept silent as China has seized and built military structures on the three big reefs in the Kalayaan Islands, which the arbitral court has recognised Filipino. The reefs in question are the Kagitingan (known internationally as Fiery Cross), Panganiban (Mischief) and Zamora (Subi).
Highlighting Asean’s timidity was its statement after its ministerial meeting in Singapore on February 6, merely to take “note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.” Singapore has assumed the chairmanship of Asean for this year.
The Singapore meeting also doused hopes that a Code of Conduct for the sea would be adopted within the year. Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that because it needs a “complicated negotiation”, the Code of Conduct (CoC) could not be agreed on this year – reversing last year’s pledge made by China and Asean in Manila that it could be hammered out within one year after both sides agreed on the framework for talks.
Balakrishnan also warned that territorial claims will not be resolved with a CoC in place, adding that there will be no shortage of very sensitive issues “that will take a lot of innovation and imagination on the part of the diplomats, and ultimately an exercise of political will”.
The adoption of a CoC was formally agreed on in 2002. But it has never been finalised because China insists on a non-binding accord.
Conflicting statements by officials of the Duterte administration have also contributed to Beijing’s aggressive action in the disputed area.
Recent words of Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, that China has assured the Philippines that it would not engage in further construction in the area, were a pathetic attempt by the government to cover up for its ineptitude in dealing with the issue.
After drawing much flak for saying that the Duterte administration relies on China’s “good faith” for its military infrastructure build-up in the disputed area, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque is now saying that the government has been protesting China’s actions. But of far greater note is that he has failed to mention how and when these protests were made.
Alito L Malinao teaches journalism at a Manila university and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos”.