Don't Count on ASEAN to Save the South China Sea

The United States needs to be realistic.

The countries of Southeast Asia have long sought progress toward a position of greater institutional unity in addressing regional security concerns. In 2009, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed on a Political-Security Community Blueprint, which stated that member states, “regard their security as fundamentally linked to one another, bound by geographical location, common vision, and objectives.” Furthermore, for fourteen years, the ASEAN states have tried to develop a framework with China to resolve their territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In an effort to build on these developments, much of Washington, including key officials in the Obama administration, have supported a diplomatic approach to the crisis in the South China Sea emphasizing regional institutional processes.

Despite such efforts, however, Southeast Asia's traditional framework for collective action has proven ineffective as a vehicle. This was demonstrated most recently by ASEAN’s deadlock over an ultimately unsuccessful effort to ensure that a joint statement mentioned the recent landmark legal ruling on the South China Sea. While some observers pin this lack of progress on ASEAN’s institutional weakness, it is important to look deeper at the rationalist underpinnings of ASEAN’s decision making. As noted by the Diplomat’s Ankit Panda, “the problem with Asia’s institutions failing to address maritime security issues seriously has nothing to do with the quality or processes of these institutions; the problem stems from widely divergent national interests, particularly between China and other states with maritime interests and claims.”

Incompatible Interests and Constrained Cooperation

The already weak foundations of the ASEAN Political-Security Community have been particularly undermined by ASEAN’s inability to fashion a collective position that addresses the issues of the disputes in the South China Sea. There can be no fundamental member state interest, as outlined in the blueprint, without common security interest. However, the interests of continental states are in doing business with China, not confronting it. Furthermore, despite acknowledgement that the nine-dash line has no basis per United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as confirmed by the recent arbitration decision, maritime states have been unable to shape a common response to the Chinese challenge.

As a result of this conflict of interests and corresponding limitation of collective action, ASEAN seems to have focused on the fulfillment of the “ASEAN way”—emphasizing compromise, consensus and consultation—to the detriment of ASEAN as a security community. ASEAN has sought to preserve the status quo in the South China Sea without alienating China, preventing the jurisdictional and territorial rivalries between some of its members and China from spilling over into the broader regional agenda of ASEAN-China relations.  As correctly predicted by Walter Lohman in 2013, “ASEAN has sacrificed members' interests to appease aggressive neighbors before—and will again.”