ASEAN Ig­nores the Ele­phant in the Room

Cambodian Business Review - - Front Page -

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.”

Photo: AFP

ASEAN lead­ers with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama at the first ASEAN-US sum­mit in the United States.

Photo: AFP

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.

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