A Maritime Maelstrom: Asean’s failure to issue a joint statement in July made waves across Southeast Asia. Could the South China Sea dispute sink the bloc in November?
By Mary Kozlovski
Marty Natalegawa must have been tired. Mere days after intense meetings in July with his counterparts from the nine other countries that form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Indonesian Foreign Minister embarked on a snap tour through the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Natalegawa was trying to mend ties that frayed during Asean’s ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, when the bloc failed to release its customary joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history.
As Asean’s summit in November approaches, with US President Barack Obama tentatively expected to attend, disputes over strategic and potentially lucrative maritime territory in the South China Sea loom over the bloc.
Christopher Roberts, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University, said that Asean is at a critical juncture in its evolution.
“What is unique in the last decade or two is the absence of a common unifying threat,” he said. “You have the Philippines firmly in the US camp, you have Cambodia moving more strongly towards the China camp and others in between, and so if anything they’re actually going in different directions more than before on certain fronts.”
Asean ran aground in July on the issue of the South China Sea, which was the scene of a standoff this year between China and the Philippines, and has triggered a recent clash between Beijing and Hanoi.
Besides China – which claims most of the contested waters – and Taiwan, Asean members Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all claim parts of the sea, which is believed to hold a wealth of untapped resources.
In 2002, during Cambodia’s first stint as Asean chair, the bloc signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) with China. The DOC committed parties to move toward adoption of a code of conduct (COC) to steer behaviour in the disputed area.
Despite rifts that emerged in the wake of the meetings, senior Asean and Chinese officials held informal talks and the bloc’s foreign ministers agreed to ‘key elements’ of their draft COC.
Carl Thayer, a politics professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said formal Asean-China talks on a code are tentatively set for September, and he is “cautiously optimistic” that an agreement could be reached by the time of the summit.
“It would be a propaganda coup for China if Asean members and China reached an agreement on the COC and this was announced in November on the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the DOC,” said Thayer. “This would also serve Asean’s purpose because Cambodia could bask in the glory.”
However, Thayer said that the process could potentially be derailed by developments at sea, or “nationalist factions” in China as its leadership transition unfolds.
After Natalegawa’s diplomatic tour, Cambodia released a statement from foreign ministers on Asean’s “six-point principles” on the sea, which said the grouping was committed to the “early conclusion of a Regional Code of Conduct”.
Roberts said that if a COC is finalised by November it is likely to contain “significant concessions” to China.
“I do think these developments just reinforce the idea that China has the upper hand and upper leverage, and [that China is] more important to a number of Asean countries than the other Asean countries are,” he said.
While Indonesia’s involvement in China’s claim may partly explain its proactive role, the country takes pride in steering Asean’s development, Roberts says.
Following protracted talks among ministers on July 12, a frustrated Natalegawa told reporters that the bloc’s inability to reach common ground was “utterly irresponsible”.
The Philippines said in a statement on July 13 that current Asean chair Cambodia opposed the Philippines’ move – which was backed by several states and the Secretariat – to include discussions about the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the communiqué, and declared that the document could not be issued.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong later told reporters that the communiqué had unacceptably become the “hostage” of bilateral issues between China and certain Asean states.
The row over the joint statement has also nudged Cambodia’s relationship with China into the spotlight. Observers hinted that Cambodia – a recipient of large amounts of Chinese aid and investment – has been advancing its benefactor’s interests within the bloc.
According to notes from a participant in a ministerial meeting, obtained and cited by Carl Thayer in a July article for Asia Times Online, Cambodia “twice rejected attempts by the Philippines, Vietnam and other Asean members” to reference recent developments in the South China Sea in the communiqué.
“[Cambodia] wasn’t a party principal to the South China Sea and it’s hard for me to say, other than the China factor, what would cause Cambodia to take such a strong, strong line,” Thayer told Southeast Asia Globe.
In a string of letters to newspaper editors in Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand, Cambodian officials have defended the country’s actions and criticised Manila and Hanoi for provoking Asean disunity.
The relationship between Cambodia and the Philippines seems especially sour. On July 30 the Philippine Star published a letter by the Cambodian ambassador to the Philippines, Hos Sereythonh, responding to an article by an undersecretary at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.
The letter said the Philippines and Vietnam wanted to “sabotage and hijack” the communiqué and the meeting by insisting on the inclusion of their “national bilateral disputes with China”.
“To try to blame Cambodia, as the Asean Chair, for what essentially was the inflexible and non-negotiable positions of the two countries of Asean is a dirty politics and therefore it should have no place in Asean,” Hos Sereythonh wrote. After the ambassador reportedly failed to respond to a summons from the Philippines requesting that he clarify his comments, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Koy Kuong was quoted in local media as saying that Hos Sereythonh’s mandate had recently ended.
Roberts said that a divergence of interests and values among Asean states means that countries are not identifying with each other, and in some cases view their neighbours as potential threats.
“We’re not seeing a kind of EU-type development yet,” he said. “To meet the goals of the Asean community you actually have to see a system emerge of reciprocity.”
During her July visit to Phnom Penh, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the decisions Asean makes and how it makes them would have “great bearing” on its future effectiveness.
Whether Clinton was alluding to specific decisions is unclear, but observers say Asean’s handling of the South China Sea dispute could influence perceptions of its ability to navigate complex political and security issues in the future.
Thayer said that if Asean fails to agree on a joint COC, China will be emboldened to assert itself against the Philippines and Vietnam by playing on Asean differences.
“Asean will be left without an effective South China Sea strategy,” he said. “This will create polarisation as the mainland states will bandwagon with China, and the littoral and maritime states will look to the US to counterbalance China. Southeast Asia will be set for a period of heightened tensions exacerbated by Sino-US rivalry.”