ASEAN Ignores the Elephant in the Room
The first ASEAN-US summit on American soil at the Sunnylands resort was notable for what it did not publicly talk about in its final declation: China.
The world’s second-largest economy is in a slump that has global repercussions. Perhaps more importantly for the 10 members of ASEAN, it is hawkishly pressing territorial claims in the South China Sea that are even prompting the US to sail warships into waters claimed by Beijing to underline freedom of navigation.
The joint declaration referred to “mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality and political independence of all nations … and a shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes”.
It also affirmed a “commitment to maintain peace, security and stability in the region, ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight.”
But it did not specifically mention China.
US officials said before the summit they wanted a clear reference in the joint communiqué to China’s actions in the South China Sea. Analysts say the fact that didn’t happen shows clear divisions within ASEAN.
“This means ASEAN doesn’t have a strong, united position on China and the South China Sea,” a Western diplomat based in Jakarta told the Cambodian Business Review.
“And that basically means China will just keep doing what it wants. There will be tensions over US freedom of navigation naval exercises, but China will just keep w building.”
China has reclaimed land on several reefs, built airstrips capable of handling longrange strategic bombers and established military bases.
Deploying ground-to-air missiles further establishes China’s position.
US President Barack Obama said China’s moves were discussed.
“We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas,” Obama said.
"Freedom of navigation must be upheld and lawful commerce should not be impeded."
More than $5 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea each year. The region is also potentially rich in oil and gas. One third of the world’s LNG exports pass through the region.
The risk of conflict should not be underestimated. Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines have claims, although the most likely clash is between the US and China.
Another flashpoint is between China and the Philippines.
The timing of the missile deployment, disclosed by Taiwan, is significant.
“This happened when the U. S.- ASEAN summit took place as Washington and the ASEAN leaders agreed to voice the concerns over the South China Sea,” Tran Cong Truc, the former chief of Vietnam’s border committee, told Radio Free Asia.
“China decided to push forward with their plan in an attempt to try to ruin the common voice of ASEAN and the U.S. in countering China.
“By doing this they want to test the water to see how other countries will react so they can continue with their plan, deploying modern weapons to the Spratly Islands.”
This fits with China’s integrated defense strategy for the South China Sea and what it calls the Nine Dash Line, also known as the Cow’s Tongue Line.
Defense analysts say China is working hard to establish military air capability over the region. Without it, its naval power is vulnerable.
For its part, Cambodia is close to China – a critical donor, including military aid, and a major investor. Three Chinese navy vessels visited Sihanoukville port in February for exercises in the Gulf of Thailand.
Important now will be how ASEAN handles the growing tensions in the South China Sea, especially balancing relations with China and the US.
“China and the US are believed to be the two main actors in the Asia-Pacific, while Russia, Japan, Australia and Indonesia are emerging to play more significant roles in the region,” says Khmer Times columnist Chheang Vannarith, who is also Chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic studies.
“ASEAN Needs to know how collectively to maneuver power relationships.”
China was only one of three key issues discussed in depth at Sunniyands important to ASEAN in moving forward as it enters its 50th year next year.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal – covering 40 percent of the world economy, but which significantly does include China – was signed by its 12 members in Auckland in February.
The deal has to ratified by member nations and, if it overcomes domestic opposition in members, is unlikely to come into force until 2018. [See Separate Story]. President Obama used the summit to press more ASEAN members, including Cambodia, to join. Cambodian finance officials said after the Sunnylands meeting they would study the idea. Key trading rival Vietnam is a member of the original 12.
Importantly, the summit – the first such meeting on US soil – showed the importance places on ASEAN, a group which has often been dismissed for its emphasis on consensus, non interference and what they see as a lack of substance. However, others see elements of that as a strength, forging a united approach among the 10 members when they do reach consensus.
The Obama administration sees ASEAN as important in the context of the issue of China’s growing strength and role in the South China Sea. And realizes its importance for strengthening bilateral relations in the region, says Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Regional powers that invest in ASEAN, accepting its symbolic gestures as part of doing business are often rewarded with opportunities to improve ties with individual relations,” he wrote in the CFR’s Asia Unbound blog.
“The Obama White House has clearly understood this bargain – join the symbolism and (sometimes) reap the reward of closer bilateral relations … and a better image among Southeast Asia publics.”
ASEAN leaders with President Barack Obama at the first ASEAN-US summit in the United States.
An aerial view shows part of the city of Sansha on the island of Yongxing, also known as Woody Island, in the disputed Paracel South China Sea chain where China reportedly moved in anti-aircraft missiles in February.