South China Sea communique: A PR win for China or a win for ASEAN regionalism?

The Philippines called the ASEAN joint communique on the South China Sea “very balanced”. It suits China, but others disagree.

By John Pennington

Predictably enough, the recent joint communique on the South China Sea issued following a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, split opinion. While the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, called it a “very balanced” document, others were far less complimentary.

Australia, Japan and the US issued a joint statement urging both parties to respect the UN’s 2016 ruling over the South China Sea that rejected China’s claim – effectively condemning the communique. It later became apparent that the wording did not ultimately represent the views of individual nations.

The South China Sea territorial disputes are many and varied

The South China Sea is a complex issue. Sovereign states – Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – in the region hold claims to parts of the sea and islands within it. Clashes between parties are not uncommon.

Third parties including the US claim the sea should be classified as international waters and operate frequent “freedom of navigation” patrols. Cambodia and Laos side with China which often prevents a consensus from being reached. Singapore and Thailand remain neutral.

After the Philippines initiated proceedings against China in 2013, a UN arbitral tribunal ruled in their favour, and the court criticised China’s land reclamation projects. However, China has refused to obey the verdict and has not dropped its territorial claims.

China continues to reclaim land, despite denials

China’s actions further complicate the issue. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a think tank run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), reported earlier this month that China continues to reclaim disputed areas of the sea.

“China’s own reclamation work did not end in mid-2015 with the completion of its artificial islands in the Spratlys,” the report, which published several photos as evidence, concluded. “Beijing continues to reclaim land farther north, in the Paracel Islands.”

The evidence is clear, but China denies the claims. Instead, the government argues that Vietnam – now their principal opponents – is at fault. “At this time, if you ask who is carrying out reclamation, it is definitely not China – perhaps it is the country that brings up the issue that is doing it,” Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said.

The Philippines have taken China’s side

In response to the lack of wording about land reclamation and militarization, Cayetano took China at their word, arguing, “I didn’t want to include it. It’s not reflective of the present position. They (China) are not reclaiming land anymore.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) then had to defend Cayetano’s claim, explaining that he was speaking without the knowledge of the new photos prepared by AMTI.

“While there have been land reclamation activities that have taken place in the Paracels in the previous months based on the AMTI report, the same report did not indicate that such activity was taking place just prior to the AMM,” the DFA claimed.

Cayetano is only taking President Rodrigo Duterte’s line. Almost exactly 12 months ago, Duterte said he wanted to ignore the ruling to maintain close relations with China.

The Philippines change of stance belies a bigger strategic aim

The UN’s decision was unequivocal. China’s claim has no legal basis. China violated the UN’s Law of the Sea by constructing artificial islands inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines let China off the hook to boost economic ties between the two countries. The less noise they make about the South China Sea, the better relations they strike up with Beijing. For both sides, the strategy is working. For the first time in five years, China is set to invest in the Philippines.

ASEAN has, therefore, given China a free pass in the South China Sea. ASEAN’s bargaining power, already weakened by Cambodia and Laos’ commitment to China, has been significantly lessened because the Philippines traded sovereignty for investment.

After Australia, Japan and the US urged all parties to respect the 2016 UN ruling, the Philippines hit back. “But we have told all countries around the world: We are a sovereign nation. We will decide what is good for us, what strategy is good for us because we are a sovereign nation,” Cayetano declared.

China is winning the war for the South China Sea

One year after Duterte decided against putting pressure on China to respect the UN judgment, the latest ASEAN communique is more of the same. However, genuine consensus over the issues among the ten parties is almost impossible to achieve. Some – like Cambodia and Vietnam, for example – are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Cayetano said the communique reflected compromises all parties made. For example, the Philippines wanted to exclude the references to land reclamations and militarization in the South China Sea. Vietnam wanted to include the wording. Indonesia and the Philippines opposed Malaysia’s keenness to include references to military assets.

As is often the case, the communique went through several drafts before all 10 ASEAN nations finally approved it. Inevitably, the language was softened to make sure all parties accepted it. However blatant the compromise and however unique their bilateral relationships are with individual ASEAN nations, the communique is a triumph for China’s foreign policy.

Nevertheless, although China is currently in a stable position, that may change in the future. Analysts predicted that the US would take a firmer line against them in the South China Sea following Donald Trump’s election. Other nations will continue to voice their disapproval.

However, with Trump distracted, Southeast Asian countries may need to take an inward and more insular look. Vietnam is moving further away from Beijing and closer to Washington. Singapore, ASEAN chair next year, may not be so keen to compromise. China may have won this battle, but the war is not yet over.