Con­tin­ued fail­ure to ad­dress the South China Sea is­sue is not just a short-term fail­ure – it now rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant and on­go­ing risk to the Southeast Asian bloc’s health. The re­gional or­gan­i­sa­tion should seek treat­ment, and stat

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - MATHEW DAVIES news­room@mm­ Mathew Davies is head of the Depart­ment of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions in the ANU Co­ral Bell School of Asia Pa­cific Af­fairs.

THE just-con­cluded meet­ing of ASEAN for­eign min­is­ters in Vientiane, Laos PDR, looked like it was go­ing to be a high-pro­file fail­ure. The fear was that the meet­ing would re­peat the 2012 ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing un­able to pro­duce a fi­nal com­mu­niqué in the face of Cam­bo­dia’s in­sis­tence that noth­ing be said that crit­i­cised China over the South China Sea.

Four years later, ASEAN may have avoided such a pub­lic dis­play of dis­unity but the re­leased com­mu­niqué, to­gether with a joint state­ment be­tween ASEAN and China on the South China Sea, sug­gest that noth­ing has been re­solved.

The joint state­ment is an in­sipid doc­u­ment that does noth­ing to ad­dress the cause of the flar­ing ten­sions in the re­gion. It is full of bland en­dorse­ments of the in­ter­na­tional le­gal prin­ci­ples that many have shown a fla­grant dis­in­ter­est in and calls for han­dling dif­fer­ences in a “con­struc­tive man­ner”. If the word con­struc­tive in this con­text is in­tended to cover the build­ing of mil­i­tary land­ing strips, the plac­ing of ad­vanced weapons sys­tems and ag­gres­sive mil­i­tary pos­tur­ing, then even given ASEAN’s abil­ity to ob­fus­cate this is a lin­guis­tic feat to marvel at.

The com­mu­niqué cer­tainly con­tains more words on the South China Sea than does the joint state­ment, a whole eight para­graphs, but it is just as damn­ing. Para­graph 174 notes that only “some min­is­ters” were con­cerned about on­go­ing is­sues (for which read: not the Cam­bo­di­ans). No men­tion was made of the re­cent Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion’s rul­ing on the South China Sea, which had so de­ci­sively re­jected China’s claims in the re­gion in favour of the Philip­pines.

In­stead all states were called upon to work to­gether to both im­ple­ment the Dec­la­ra­tion on the Con­duct of Par­ties in the South China Sea and work to­ward build­ing a Code of Con­duct to bet­ter man­age af­fairs. Th­ese are laud­able in them­selves but hardly help­ful given the Dec­la­ra­tion was agreed in 2002 and has con­spic­u­ously failed to cur­tail re­gional ten­sions and any Code of Con­duct would se­ri­ously cur­tail China’s free­dom of ac­tion in the re­gion, which is com­pletely unimag­in­able at this stage.

ASEAN’s con­tin­ued fail­ure to ad­dress the South China Sea in any­thing ap­proach­ing an ef­fec­tive man­ner is not only a short-term fail­ure – it now rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant and on­go­ing risk to ASEAN’s health. This chal­lenge will not take the form of a heart at­tack, a sud­den and ex­is­ten­tial shock to the sys­tem. In­stead it is an ul­cer, a con­stant pain in the guts that threat­ens, slowly but in­ex­orably, to flood the sys­tem with bile. This chal­lenge takes two forms.

First, ASEAN from 1967 has al­ways been about pro­tect­ing the sovereignty of its mem­bers from the en­croach­ment of great pow­ers – as Alice Ba has mem­o­rably put it the “re­gional re­silience” of Southeast Asia. ASEAN was founded in the be­lief of re­gional self-de­ter­mi­na­tion – in the wake of colo­nial­ism and amid the Cold War it was a call to en­sure that Southeast Asian states re­mained in the driv­ing seat of Southeast Asian af­fairs.

To­day, with ASEAN mem­ber Cam­bo­dia serv­ing as a sur­ro­gate for China against the in­ter­ests of other ASEAN mem­bers, it no longer seems to be that the or­gan­i­sa­tion serves the in­ter­ests of the re­gion.

Fail­ure in the South China Sea to of­fer even the most tepid of sup­port for mem­ber states’ claims against a ris­ing China, es­pe­cially the more moder­ate of those claims, strikes at the heart of what ASEAN was de­signed to achieve. If ASEAN can­not talk of mem­ber states’ sov­er­eign claims against ex­ter­nal great pow­ers, what is the value of ASEAN to those mem­bers?

Sec­ond, ASEAN’s own quest for cen­tral­ity in Asia-Pa­cific se­cu­rity is re­vealed to be a fruit­less quest when there is so much rea­son to ques­tion even ASEAN’s rel­e­vance to the most press­ing of re­gional se­cu­rity is­sues. ASEAN has al­ways sought to spread the norms of con­sen­sus de­ci­sion­mak­ing that it is sup­posed to fol­low in­ter­nally across the Asia-Pa­cific as a way to ex­ert some sort of paci­fy­ing ef­fect on the great pow­ers of the re­gion. Yet if those same norms are now pre­vent­ing ASEAN’s abil­ity to en­gage in a mean­ing­ful way with China, in what way can they be said to be pos­i­tive and wor­thy of oth­ers fol­low­ing?

The South China Sea is­sue, then, is not an ex­ter­nal threat to ASEAN, but an in­ter­nal health risk – a sore that if not ad­dressed will con­tinue to leach its poi­son into the re­gional or­gan­i­sa­tion and the faith that its mem­bers have in it.

The chal­lenge is not a su­per­fi­cial one. It is not about whether ASEAN will unite in de­fence of an Amer­i­can-de­signed in­ter­na­tional or­der as was the wish of US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama at the Sun­ny­lands Sum­mit or whether it will con­tinue to forge its own path.

The chal­lenge is about whether ASEAN can con­tinue to be val­ued by its mem­bers for the rea­sons it was cre­ated – whether it has the strength of pur­pose to de­fend its mem­bers from ex­ter­nal in­ter­fer­ence, whether it can con­tinue as a ve­hi­cle for re­gional self-de­ter­mi­na­tion rather than a gen­er­a­tor of re­gional dis­cord, and whether it can choose cen­tral­ity over ir­rel­e­vance.

As with any health risk, this chal­lenge needs to be con­fronted sooner rather than later and with a co­her­ent, mea­sured re­sponse, not a ran­dom as­sort­ment of low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor ac­tions. I fear that the prog­no­sis has just de­te­ri­o­rated.

Photo: EPA

A Filipino fish­er­man stands on a partly sub­merged boat at a fish­ing vil­lage in Cavite City, Philip­pines, on July 16. The Philip­pines this month won a case against China over ter­ri­to­rial claims in the South China Sea that it brought be­fore The Hague’s Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion, but Bei­jing has in­di­cated it will dis­re­gard the ver­dict.

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