Asean is silent and impotent over a Chinese rig and territory claims off its members' shores
As China tows in a $1-billion oil exploration rig, parking it in a disputed region of the South China Sea and unleashing deadly anti-China protests in Vietnam, Southeast Asian neighbours have remained relatively mute and impotent. The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, released a statement two weekends ago expressing “serious concerns over ongoing developments in the South China Sea”. Asean ministers called for restraint and peaceful resolution of the dispute, but without mentioning China.
This is remarkable as Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had warned his Asean colleagues at the meeting that China’s “extremely dangerous action had been directly endangering peace, stability, security, and marine safety”.
President Beningo Aquino of the Philippines, which also disputes China’s claims in the South China Sea, alerted Asean colleagues to indications that China was reclaiming land around disputed Johnson South Reef of the Spratly Islands, possibly to build an airstrip. Shortly before the Asean meeting, Philippine maritime police arrested Chinese fishermen for reportedly poaching protected sea turtles near the islands, also claimed by the Philippines.
Asean foreign ministers issued a rare standalone statement expressing “serious concerns” about developments in the sea and calling for quicker action in negotiating a code of conduct between China and the grouping. Vietnam and the Philippines undoubtedly hoped for stronger support from their neighbours, two of which – Malaysia and Brunei – have their own overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea, which serves as a major international shipping route, has rich fishing grounds, and is believed to hold deposits of oil and gas.
The diverse Asean grouping probably did about as much as could be expected considering that it is consensus driven and has struggled in the past to reach a joint stance on tensions in the South China Sea. Two years ago, Asean foreign ministers for the first time failed to issue a statement at the end of their summit in Cambodia because Phnom Penh refused to include any reference to a discussion of the sea disputes. Many Southeast Asian countries are reluctant to challenge China because it has become their largest trading partner and it is the largest aid donor to nations like Cambodia and Laos.
On top of that, the major points in the statement summing up the latest leaders’ meeting had reportedly been agreed upon before China parked the oil rig, as it became clear that no senior leader from Thailand, in the midst of political crisis, would be able to attend the summit and sign off on major revisions.
Still, reading between the lines of the Asean statements, leaders clearly spent considerable time discussing developments in the South China Sea, as China’s latest moves have them worried. The leaders also anticipate this would not be their last word of the year on China’s increased assertiveness. In early August, the Asean foreign ministers can count on the backing of the foreign ministers of the United States, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and others when they meet for the Asean Regional Forum in Myanmar. This will be followed in November by the East Asia Summit, attended by the leaders of the US, Japan, and India, among others. Asean officials recognise that they will not need to take the lead in discussions with China about the South China Sea at these meetings.
The US response was quick. Secretary of State John Kerry had a telephone conversation with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on May 12 and, a spokesman reported he described China’s introduction of an oil rig in waters disputed with Vietnam as “provocative”.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister K Shanmugan visited Washington right after the Asean meeting, and afterwards, Kerry said that “we want to see a code of conduct created; we want to see this resolved peacefully through the Law of the Sea, through arbitration, through any other means, but not direct confrontation and aggressive action”. Shanmugan added that “Asean’s ability to deal with or reduce tension on any given incident is not significant”.
President Barack Obama visited the Philippines shortly before China moved its rig into an area claimed by Vietnam. “We believe that international law must be upheld, that freedom of navigation must be preserved, and commerce must not be impeded,” Obama said during his visit. “We believe that disputes must be resolved peacefully and not by intimidation and force.” In the weeks leading up to the president’s visit to Asia, US officials had publicly challenged the legitimacy of China’s nine-dash line claims to most of the South China Sea and had warned Beijing not to impose an Air Defence Identification Zone over this sea as it had in the East China Sea near Japan late last year.
Many US analysts suggest that Beijing moved the rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone to signal to Washington and the capitals of Asean that China plans to test the US commitment in its rebalance to Asia to stand by its allies and friends in the face of stepped-up Chinese assertiveness. “China is saying to its neighbours ‘You sure you want to sign on to the US rebalance?’” one China expert says.
Much of Washington’s strategy focuses on building international support to challenge China’s assertiveness in such forums as the East Asia Summit and the Asean Regional Forum while developing closer ties with the Southeast Asian disputing parties, particularly the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. It is also seeking to improve military ties with the goal of helping boost the military domain awareness of these countries. And since the dispute began the US Navy has renewed its offers to bolster ties with Vietnam, including offering more ship visits.
The United States and at least some Asean member countries hope increased international pressure will nudge China to explore compromises built around global rules such as the UN law of the sea. Manila last year mounted a challenge to China’s sovereignty claims by asking an arbitration tribunal to rule on whether Beijing’s nine-dash line has legal standing. China has refused to participate in the case, but some observers anticipate that Beijing might feel some pressure if other countries, say, Vietnam would launch similar actions.
But it’s far from certain that this policy will work, at least in the short term. “From China’s perspective, they aren’t paying a very high price,” says China foreign policy expert Bonnie Glaser, at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who visited Beijing just after the news of its oil rig broke. “My sense from discussions in Beijing is that the Chinese are determined to assert their claims and are willing to tolerate a degree of tensions with their neighbours.”
China recognises that it cannot challenge Washington militarily any time soon, but it is convinced that it holds a huge edge over the United States in its economic ties with China’s neighbours. Glaser said the Chinese “believe that the benefits that their neighbours gain from China economically will prevail [and that] the region will eventually accept Chinese dominance in the South China Sea. A statement by Asean expressing ‘serious concern’ isn’t going to change China’s calculus.”
Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.