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"ASEAN back on track on the South China Sea" by Hoang Thi Ha

2017/47, 8 August 2017

There was one thing that the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM) did not disappoint: bringing ASEAN’s position on the South China Sea (SCS) back on track. In April, Manila set a low bar in this respect by failing to register the regional concerns on land reclamations and the importance of non-militarisation in the SCS during the 30th ASEAN Summit, purportedly due to Beijing’s intense pressure.

One therefore may reasonably expect this soft approach to continue to prevail as the ASEAN foreign ministers gathered in Manila over the weekend. There had been a quiet resignation to the fact that ASEAN diplomacy could only do that much, or that little. In fact, ASEAN does have good enough reasons not to invite China’s wrath so as to maintain both the current semblance of stability at sea and the momentum from the agreed COC framework.

However, leaked reports about ASEAN’s intense debates on the SCS paragraphs in the Joint Communique indicate that the SCS is not game over yet. Vietnam is now holding the torch in taking a tougher stand against China’s recent aggressive behaviour at sea while Cambodia standing watch on the other side. In between these two positions, the rest of the ASEAN member states are keen to strike a positive and forward-looking tone, driven not by any illusion that China is changing course from assertiveness to accommodation, but by the attraction of Beijing’s inducements and awe of its retaliations.

The Joint Communique of the 50th AMM returned to the middle-way approach adopted at 49th AMM in Vientiane last year. On the one hand, it recognised the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China especially through the agreement of the COC framework. On the other hand, it reiterated the principle of non-militarisation while at the same time not shying from voicing concerns over land reclamations and other activities which have increased tensions and eroded trust and confidence in the SCS. Seen from last year’s vantage point, this outcome is not a leap forward. But compared to the ASEAN Summit in April, the Joint Communique should be credited for preserving ASEAN’s principled position on the SCS, which has been drifting and fading away since early this year.

Unlike the Chairman’s Statement of the ASEAN Summit which is the prerogative of the Chair, the Joint Communique is a negotiated document and therefore requires consensus and compromise of all ASEAN member states. Haggling over some wordings therein may appear unnecessarily tedious and one may wonder how much it can affect the situation on the ground. However, it is through this exercise that ASEAN unity is put on display, while demonstrating its resilience in face of both internal stress and external pressure. In this sense, the 50th AMM managed to maintain ASEAN unity by bringing ASEAN position on the SCS back on a balanced and principled footing. But how long this will last will bear watching.

Ms Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher II (Political-Security) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.