Set against the backdrop of the US-China trade war and increasing tensions in the South China Sea, the 35th ASEAN Summit saw regional leaders push for increased unity to meet regional challenges.
“You go alone, you’ll be bullied,” Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed told business leaders at the 35th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok on Saturday. As regional leaders converged on Bangkok between November 1 and 4, 2019, the importance of unity and solidarity was a prominent overarching narrative.
Dominating the ASEAN summit’s agenda this year was the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP), the 16-nation free trade agreement set to establish a free trade zone encompassing 39% of total global output and almost half of the global population.
Recent tensions in the South China Sea, where a Chinese survey ship and Vietnamese coastguard vessels have been embroiled in a standoff at Vanguard Bank since July, also featured prominently in discussions.
Economic and diplomatic cooperation is key to meeting regional and global challenges
Mahathir’s comments gave voice to ASEAN’s most pressing internal struggle. The 10-nation economic bloc has employed a “decision by consensus” approach to regional challenges. All 10-nations have had to give their express support to any action or statement the bloc produces. This has allowed external players an avenue to influence ASEAN decision-making. By preventing the emergence of a consensus, foreign governments have been able to limit ASEAN’s effectiveness at responding to regional threats.
The alternative, as alluded to by Mahathir, is going it alone. However, individual ASEAN nations’ voices are often drowned out and ignored when they strike out alone on the international stage.
The 35th ASEAN Summit was a showcase of ASEAN centrality
The summit was an illustration of ASEAN regional centrality and the merits of unity in international trade and diplomacy. RCEP negotiations, of which ASEAN nations make up 10 of the 16 participating nations (the others are China, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand), are drawing to a close, albeit without India’s participation.
Members have reportedly agreed on 14 of the 20 chapters. Negotiations on the legal framework are expected to be completed in February, suggesting the pact will be signed in 2020.
The agreement’s negotiation can be interpreted as a coordinated regional response to global economic threats. Talks on the RCEP have been ongoing since 2012; however, limited progress was made until the advent of the US-China trade war. As regional economies sought to mitigate the negative impacts of President Donald Trump’s trade war, the RCEP and the bolstering of intra-regional trade emerged as a potential source of economic stability.
Beyond the RCEP, the summit also saw individual ASEAN nations express their desire for increased economic integration. Thai Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit pushed for further integration in regional financial systems. He told reporters that ASEAN was working on a regulatory framework for cross-border payments and data protection. This would facilitate the growth of the regional eCommerce sector. The Southeast Asian digital economy currently accounts for 7% of GDP, suggesting there is ample room for growth. In the US and the EU, the digital economy accounts for 35% and 27% respective GDPs.
Without a united front on the South China Sea issue, Chinese aggression will go unchecked
The most important area for ASEAN cooperation remains the South China Sea. 2019 has seen a marked increase in Chinese aggression. In July, China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8, a survey ship, entered contested waters to survey oil stores off the coast of Vietnam, violating Vietnamese sovereignty under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The Vietnamese coast guard met the ship at Vanguard bank, where the Vietnamese government are developing oil projects with the assistance of Russian energy company, Rosneft. The Chinese and Vietnamese vessels have been locked in a standoff ever since.
The Chinese government sees the South China Sea and its 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas stores and 11 billion barrels of oil as an opportunity to reduce its dependence on foreign crude oil. However, the territory Beijing claims within its “nine-dash line” encroaches on Vietnamese, Philippine, Malaysian, Indonesia, and Bruneian waters.
ASEAN nations are keen to push back against overt Chinese aggression and Beijing’s breach of international law. However, without a unified approach, individual nations will be vulnerable to Beijing’s bullying and economic threats.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte underscored the importance of ASEAN in confronting Chinese aggression ahead of the ASEAN Summit. “ASEAN must… remain united. We must lead the way in building trust and confidence among all stakeholders,” he said.
“We must use all the influence that we have, individually and collectively, to persuade parties to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.”
Both individual and collective influence have been on full display at the 35th ASEAN Summit. In addition to the calls for collective action, individual ASEAN nations and their backers have raised the South China Sea issue with China in sideline discussions.
On November 3, at a meeting between Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, on the sidelines of the summit, Xuan Phuc reiterated the need for China to respect marine economic norms and international law. He reiterated Vietnam’s willingness to protect its sovereignty, territories and maritime rights under international law.
On the same day, Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, met with ASEAN leaders at the 16th ASEAN-India Summit. During the discussions, Modi shared his concerns over Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, including its militarization of the region and disregard for international law. In a statement, Modi emphasized the importance of rules-based orders and welcomed the strengthening of India-ASEAN maritime cooperation. He acknowledged ASEAN’s central role in India’s East Asia-Pacific Action Policy and Vision.
ASEAN leaders welcomed India’s implementation of its Act East Policy for actively supporting ASEAN’s centrality as well as regional integration and community-building efforts.
A Code of Conduct will be essential for preventing conflict
The product of ASEAN unity on the South China Sea issue should be the establishment of a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC). An effective COC will have the backing of all 10 ASEAN member states and set out a clear set of rules and responsibilities for claimant states.
Through consensus, the bloc can push for a COC which protects ASEAN nations’ rights to carry out military drills in the South China Sea with outside powers, permit nations to work with outside oil firms on joint development projects, protect freedom of navigation throughout the region, and protect the sovereign rights of individual nations.
The Chinese government has indicated its receptiveness to negotiations. However, there are concerns that Beijing has employed delaying tactics to buy time to engage in unlawful expansion activities and further militarize its outposts in the region.
Beijing’s recent encroachment on Vietnamese sovereignty only serves to underscore the importance of ongoing COC negotiations. Former Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario warned recently, “absent a binding code of conduct, continued Chinese aggression and military activities will persistently push the existing entitlements under international law of Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam into more turbulent waters.” A COC is essential in preventing further diplomatic escalation and increased aggression from Beijing.
The 35th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok highlighted ASEAN’s position at the centre of regional geopolitical and economic solutions. It was a showcase of both the fruit of ASEAN solidarity, as well as the need for further cooperation.
Despite its vulnerabilities, ASEAN’s decision making by consensus is a source of power for the bloc and will be of central importance in safeguarding nations’ sovereignty and resources in the face of increased Chinese aggression.