China or the US – who’s splitting ASEAN apart over the South China Sea?

The aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, which US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited as it was ploughing through the South China Sea. US Navy

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Two senior Singaporean diplomats this week hit out at China for trying to “divide ASEAN” and for “interfering in the domestic affairs of ASEAN”, after China announced a consensus agreement with three ASEAN countries, Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, that the South China Sea disputes were “not an issue between China and ASEAN as a whole“.

The remarks by Bilahari Kausikan and Ong Keng Yong, diplomats from a country rarely known to make strong criticism of China, suggest signs of a significant boiling point in the South China Sea disputes, at which they felt warranted to respond in such fashion. Mr Ong is a former secretary-general of ASEAN. They were speaking at a well-reported conference in Jakarta on Monday (25 April).

That consensus agreement between China and the three ASEAN member states struck a raw nerve, as it went against the grain of the agreed ASEAN stance – namely that the correct forum for addressing the South China Sea disputes was between China and ASEAN, with the latter as a united grouping.

One further aggravating factor was that the announcement of the consensus agreement was made by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Vientiane, Laos, the country which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN this year. At ASEAN meetings and summits, the norm would be for the chairing country for that given year to issue the “chairman’s statement” to sum up the consensus of all ten ASEAN member states on the matters under discussion.

Therefore, the manner in which the consensus agreement was announced sent a particularly strong negative signal to the rest of ASEAN, who were not part of that agreement, that China was attempting to divide the ASEAN grouping.

Who are the parties to the consensus agreement?

Furthermore, the countries party the consensus agreement with China constituted an odd mix. Two of them, Cambodia and Laos, are not even claimant states involved in the South China Sea.

In fact, Laos is a landlocked country with no access to any sea, for that matter. Cambodia does have a coast line, but that faces the Gulf of Thailand, rather than the South China Sea.

Cambodia and Laos have of course been the closest friends of China among the ASEAN membership. Chinese investments and the resultant influence it carries in those countries are growing.

What comes to mind too was the ASEAN summit of July 2012 chaired by Cambodia, at which no joint statement was issued for the first time in ASEAN’s history – because Cambodia shied away from criticism of China in the draft statement, which some of the ASEAN member states who were locked in disputes with China wanted.

Repartee and responses

There seemed to be a climb-down on both the Chinese and the Singaporeans, over the course of the week, as if cognisant of the unhelpful effect of the media unhelpfully amplifying their remarks which let to the mini-spat.

Ong Keng Yong clarified the following day that his remarks were made in his personal capacity rather than on behalf of the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said that “I believe the comments made by the two former Singaporean diplomats are based on miscalculations and misunderstanding of China-ASEAN relations”. Nevertheless, Mr Liu asked the two Singaporean diplomats for a clarification for their remarks.

Incidentally, Mr Liu was in Singapore on Thursday (28 April) to attend a meeting of ASEAN and China senior officials on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), when he made those responses.

More to come, with impending Philippines v China ruling

This latest twist in a long standing dispute is most likely spurred on by the impending ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on Philippines v China – the case where Manila brought the dispute China’s “nine dotted line” claim over virtually over the whole South China Sea.

At the announcement in Vientiane last Saturday too, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated Beijing’s stance that it would reject the findings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It is generally expected that the court would rule in favour of the Philippines.

During a congressional hearing this week in Washington, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that China if disregarded the ruling, it “risks doing terrible damage to its reputation, further alienating countries in the region and pushing them even closer to the United States.”

Is it the US’s fault?

It has sometimes been pointed out in defence of China that it is in fact the other claimants to the features in the South China Sea that are acting aggressively in an “expansionist” fashion.

In May last year, US Assistant Secretary of Defense, David Shear, said that “Vietnam has 48 outposts [in the South China Sea]; the Philippines, 8; China, 8; Malaysia, 5, and Taiwan, 1.” China has not physically occupied additional features, in contrast to Vietnam which has doubled its holdings in the past six years.

Yet others have blamed the US itself for “meddling” in the South China Sea disputes. With the US military presence making a comeback on Philippine soil since it left in 1992. China has blamed the US’ for its “militarisation” of the situation and for “going back on its words”.

So is it “American imperialism” that has wreaked trouble in Asian waters?

The US-China pronouncements over these maritimes disputes in Asia certainly looks like a tit-for-tat game, nevertheless with very serious military consequences. They extend also to Northeast Asia, such as when China announced an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China in November 2013, which encroached into the air space of Japan and even South Korea. The Koreans were particularly surprised.

Japan and South Korea both have a strong military alliance with the US, dating back to the years. But the US has no such alliances in Southeast Asia – the Philippines now seem the closest to one.