ASEAN continues to avoid the South China Sea: time to change the consensus?

Asean National Flags in JakartaAsean National Flags in Jakarta. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Gunawan Kartapranata

The latest ASEAN summit closed with a statement that, yet again, avoided the difficult issue of the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Instead, regional politics is being closely guided by the external influence of Beijing or Washington and local leaders are beginning to suggest a move away from the bloc’s core principle of consensus.

By Dung Phan

Soon after the East Asia Summit in the Laotian capital ended on Thursday evening, leaders issued a joint communique emphasising the essence of unity and the progress on emergency hotlines. The controversial Hague ruling, which invalidates China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, will be excluded – again.

The meeting did feature the argument between US President Obama and Philippine President Duterte over human rights. Meanwhile the South China Sea issues – a central topic regionally – are still at an impasse. Most countries “expressed concerns” over the situation but none of the ASEAN members directly criticised China. Duterte instead decided to spend time responding to Obama’s comments. The Philippines wanted “a soft landing,” said presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella.

While Obama called the ruling “legal and binding”, urging Beijing to comply with the verdict, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also sided with the US, stressing that “the arbitration ruling is binding for all countries involved.” China apparently pushed back, saying there was no change in the situation around the shoal. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang even made a veiled criticism of US and Japanese involvement in the dispute by reiterating that there should be no interference from third parties.

The decentralisation of ASEAN

There are always high expectations when ASEAN leaders meet. And this time around they were expected to adopt at least eight agreements during the three-day summit. However, is not it time to aim at more substantive progress than documents full of admirable goals and commitment to realising them?

Since its establishment, ASEAN always wants to focus on its “centrality”, the idea that ten countries will remain at the heart of regional cooperation. The ASEAN Charter states that ASEAN’s goal is “to maintain the centrality and proactive role of ASEAN as the primary driving force in its relations and cooperation with external partners in a regional architecture that is open, transparent and inclusive.”

In other words, centrality “is not an outcome or some end-state to run toward. It is the run itself — an ongoing process of continuous engagements with external partners,” wrote Evan A. Laksmana, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

Since then many institutions have been created to promote that spirit: these include the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), among others. But underneath those endless ASEAN-related acronyms is an unprecedented surge in external cooperation, especially military and defence links just to confront Chinese assertiveness.

When it comes to the South China Sea, ASEAN’s claim to “centrality” has been questioned by China. In this context, ASEAN nations have stopped being protagonists. Instead, it is Japan, the US and China who are steering the wheel and telling ASEAN countries which directions they should follow. When regional players directly involved in the disputes are unwilling to align themselves closely with Washington and Tokyo, many believe China is celebrating another victory.

I agree that Beijing scored a small victory in avoiding a rebuke by the summit delegates as a whole,” said Jay Batongbacal, a law professor at the University of the Philippines.

Time to change the consensus?

One of the preconditions to achieve centrality is a consensus. As Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said, the consensus can be goals that everyone knows are unattainable. China’s expanding influence and disregard for international law has also shed light on the limits of traditional approaches. However, some elements in the bloc have started to seek better approaches for decision-making.

Vietnam has led the charge with the statement from President Tran Dai Quang saying ASEAN should consider “supplementing” its consensus-based principle with other processes. That implies a change from unanimous voting to majority-vote decision-making. With Duterte stepping up as the new ASEAN 2017 chair, will a guy who has been fighting for his own country’s interest continue to opt for collective muteness in the guise of consensus?