Can Beijing’s influence on the South China Sea break ASEAN?

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

By Dung Phan

The four-day ASEAN meeting in the Laotian capital, Vientiane was supposed to resolve disputes in the South China Sea. Instead it ended up with the vaunted unity of the 10 countries left in disarray.

Cambodia rejected the wording on the ruling, again putting the association at the risk of chaos and division. And these multilateral wobbles are not the first. Just last month an ASEAN statement expressing, “serious concerns” over developments in the sea was released by Malaysia, only to be withdrawn within hours because of Laos’ support.

Failure of the communiqué

In their wrap-up of the Vientiane meeting ministers from the 10 member countries made no specific mention of the Hague ruling, saying just that they were pleased with the progress of ties with China. Although a careful reading of the final statement expressed concerns about tension in the South China Sea, experts said the issue was it did so without citing China by name.

More specifically, the communiqué said ministers remained, “seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area.”

Did China need to be mentioned by name? In truth what matters more is that the language on ASEAN’s commitment to principles in the South China Sea section was watered down.

National interests?

The bottleneck that is impeding ASEAN’s progress is that it can only issue statements when there is consensus among all 10 member countries. And China, with a strong hand over its much smaller neighbours at the negotiating table, leveraged that by ensuring that Cambodia and Laos would not provide that consensus.

Over the last two decades, China has offered about $15 billion in aid and soft loans to Cambodia. And more recently, Beijing also provided a further $600 million aid package to support election infrastructure, education and health projects, said Hun Sen almost immediately after the Hague verdict.

A week later, China confirmed it would finance the request from the Cambodians for a 12-story building at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh.

“Aid has won China some close friends in Southeast Asia, and Cambodia in particular has been quite willing to cast vetoes on communiqué language inimical to Chinese interests,” said John Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Michigan.

He adds that Cambodia had clearly identified China as a more attractive benefactor than its neighbours within the ASEAN bloc, or the United States and the West, where aid carries a price in terms of satisfying human rights standards that Cambodia, “does not necessarily want to pay.”

Exposing vulnerabilities

In a change from their initial reactions when the ruling was announced, four claimant countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei now, “appeared less enthusiastic than others in wanting to rebuke China”, says diplomats attending the Laos meetings.

The Philippines, who brought out the case, said the ruling by the arbitration panel, “was not the object of our meeting in ASEAN”. Manila’s foreign minister then told a news conference that, “the arbitral award is a matter between China and the Philippines,” implying that ASEAN should not get involved.

Malaysia’s foreign minister did not even show up for the meetings, while Brunei took pains to praise China’s leadership, say diplomats who attended a later meeting of ASEAN and Asia-Pacific nations. Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, Le Hoai Trung, also underlined that the country prefers bilateral talks with China.

It is clear that China now can decide what compromise it wants to make. But the way that Cambodia is playing such an important role, even though it the only country in ASEAN yet to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), shows the vulnerability of the southeast Asian bloc.

“This multilateral forum of 10 countries, having to deal with this issue, leaves them open to all kinds – with certain countries like Cambodia – of outside pressure, and it’s actually detrimental, I think, to the future of ASEAN,” said Bernd Schaefer, from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.

China’s control

While the pantomime of politics plays out at the multilateral level, state-run companies are joining forces to offer luxury cruises in the waters and 4G services have been extended to several disputed South China Sea islands.

Along with creating new islands on top of coral reefs, China is strengthening its forces by building airstrips, harbours and lighthouses that will benefit fishermen and ship owners.

On Thursday, the Chinese military announced plans to hold joint exercises with Russian forces in September in the South China Sea, aiming at deepening relations between the two militaries and boosting their capacity to respond to maritime threats.

With China showing no signs of slowing down its efforts to exert control over the South China Sea, there does not seem to be any optimism for the future of ASEAN. What is the point?