The Tragedy of Small Power Politics

China's rise, along with moves in the South China Sea, has many on edge. Some in the ASEAN community are moving closer together as a response. 

With China tightening its grip on much of the South China Sea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is struggling to adopt an appropriate and unified response. Ironically, this year is supposed to be the “Year of China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation”. Since Cambodia’s disastrous chairmanship of the regional body, which led to tremendous divisions within the ASEAN and acrimonious exchanges between Cambodia and the Philippines, there have been concerted efforts, especially by Indonesia (the informal regional leader), to ensure China doesn’t use its regional pawns to block discussions over the ongoing disputes. The product, however, is a new orthodoxy, whereby ASEAN expresses “serious concerns” vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes, but repeatedly falls short of offering any tangible response.

“We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine [authors’ emphasis] peace, security and stability in the South China Sea,” read the ASEAN chairman’s statement. ASEAN also "reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea." Beyond those passive-aggressive statements, however, there was no breakthrough in terms of adopting a common strategy to ensure China stands honest to its years-long promise of negotiating a legally-binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. Nor was there any discussion on the recent proposal for a joint ASEAN peacekeeping patrol in the area.

However, China couldn’t even tolerate any expression of concern by ASEAN. In a half-comical, half-hubristic retort, the Chinese Foreign Ministry (also) expressed “serious concern” over ASEAN’s statement, urging “countries to move in the same direction as China by preserving peace and stability of the South China Sea, as well as maintaining China-ASEAN relations.” Beijing also accused an "individual country" [the Philippines] of hijacking ASEAN’s agenda by “regionalizing” disputes, which are supposedly purely bilateral in nature. Unwilling to accept any form of criticism, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei lashed out at Southeast Asian claimant countries, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, for allegedly “carrying out reclamations on the Chinese islands they are illegally occupying in the Nansha Islands [Spratly], building airports and other fixed infrastructure, even deploying missiles and other military equipment”—questionable claims, which were immediately dismissed by China’s neighbors.

Frustrated by ASEAN’s growing irrelevance, the Philippines, and Vietnam have opted for minilateralism, moving towards a strategic partnership vis-à-vis the common Chinese threat in the South China Sea. The relevance of this budding alliance, however, lies in how it serves as a component of a larger informal network of alliances on China’s peripheries, especially as middle powers such as Japan and India augment the U.S.-led efforts at reining in China’s growing assertiveness across the western Pacific.

ASEAN Neutrality 

There are at least two problems with ASEAN’s strategy in the South China Sea. First, the regional body continues to rely on a dysfunctional decision-making principle, whereby nothing moves forward unless there is a consensus, mostly based on the least common denominator. What is certainly needed is an “ASEAN-X” formula, whereby the reasonable majority can prevent few hardliners from hijacking the entire process by vetoing any significant development. With respect to trade, investment, and economic integration, ASEAN has already employed such a formula with considerable success.

The second problem has to do with ASEAN’s wholesale, uncritical embrace of China’s economic carrots. Instead of making sure greater engagement with China is based on a balanced focus on both security and trade relations, Southeast Asian countries have (perilously) pursued greater economic interdependence—or, to be more accurate, dependence—on China without demanding any significant concessions on security-related matters, particularly with respect to abiding by the principles of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).