South China Sea Disputes Expected to Take Center Stage at ASEAN Summit

Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Xu Qiliang. Kremlin.ru

Duterte's leadership may make ASEAN appear strong, but internal divisions may prevent the Southeast Asian group from standing up to China.

After upending the regional order by boldly declaring his “separation” from America in favor of joining China’s “ideological flow” last year, Philippine president Rodrigo Roa Duterte has assumed the rotational chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year. The Philippines’ newfound regional leadership has come at a particularly crucial juncture, as the ASEAN grapples with a toxic combination of rising tensions in the South China Sea and lingering uncertainty over the future of American policy in Asia. So far, the Trump administration has been largely mum on whether it will continue its predecessor’s robust engagement with the region’s smaller powers.

Nonetheless, there are high expectations that the Philippines’ action-oriented strongman, who has as emerged as the most visible face of Southeast Asian politics since the good old days of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore) and Mahathir Mohamad (Malaysia), will steer the region towards a new phase of integration. That ASEAN is marking the fiftieth anniversary of its founding has provided an additional impetus for a major breakthrough this year, particularly in terms of addressing the festering maritime disputes that threaten to tear the fabric of Asian security architecture asunder.

The problem, however, is continued confusion over Duterte’s own foreign-policy calculus, thanks to the Filipino leader’s semiotic overdrive, penchant for mixed messages and personalistic approach to regional politics. Moreover, a pervasive form of institutional decay has afflicted the ASEAN, as the “cult of consensus” paralyzes decisionmaking on sensitive issues such as territorial disputes.

What is at stake is not only the soul of one of the most successful models of regional integration outside the West, but also the prospects of a rule-based resolution of one of the most perilous flashpoints of our age. Given the central role of ASEAN as the engine of regional integration across the Asia-Pacific Rim, the success and failures of the regional body will inevitably have an impact of the twenty-first century global order.

The virtues of ASEAN

ASEAN was originally conceived based on two strategic imperatives: First, creation of a bulwark against communism during the height of Cold War; second, prevention of the escalation of internecine conflicts between the newly created post-colonial nations in archipelagic Southeast Asia. Founding members such as the Philippines and Thailand, in particular, played a crucial role in facilitating American military interventions during the Vietnam War.

The first imperative was rendered obsolete with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent integration of communist Indo-Chinese states into the ASEAN. The second imperative, meanwhile, continues to be one of the greatest achievements of the regional body.

Since it’s founding, no member-state has gone to war against another. If anything, ASEAN has established a virtual security community, where member states have, so far, renounced the use of force in settling their disputes. In fact, the Indonesian-Malaysian dispute over Ligitan and Sipadan and the Thai-Cambodia dispute over Preah Vihear Temple (Phra Viharn to Thai people) have been largely resolved in accordance to international law. Other regional disputes, namely Indonesia-Singapore maritime borders, have followed a similar path.

Meanwhile, protracted territorial disputes, namely between Malaysia and the Philippines over the energy-rich Sabah, have been largely kept below the threshold of direct confrontation. This is a far cry from the pre-ASEAN dark year of Konfrontasi, when Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore came to blows.

The same, however, can’t be said about the ASEAN’s conflict-management record when the disputes involved member-states and a foreign power, namely China. After two decades of continuous negotiations, the ASEAN and China are yet to finalize a legally binding ‘rules of the road’ in the hotly contested South China Sea. Meanwhile, China is reengineering the maritime heart of Asia in its own image.

Talk and take strategy

As early as 1996, barely two years after China’s usurpation of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, the ASEAN proposed a Code of Conduct (COC), “which will lay the foundation for long-term stability in the area and foster understanding among claimant countries.” Three years later, before the millennial turn, Southeast Asian countries forward the proposal to China, which promised to take it into full consideration. By 2002, however, China agreed to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea, which was simply a declaratory document designed as a prelude to a legally-binding agreement in the near future.

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