“The ASEAN-China meeting was held ahead of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a case brought by the Philippines contesting Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea” (In New Setback, ASEAN Retracts South China Sea Statement, TODAY Editorial).
Inability of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a joint statement on tensions in the South China Sea – not even mentioning the fact that the regional organisation first issued before retracting the statement, when two ASEAN countries withdrew their support (TODAY, Jun. 16) – is not only farcical, but also signals problems for the future. For a long time community-building has been a focus, with plans for integration under the ASEAN Community 2015 blueprint and for further cooperation by 2020, and persistent lack of consensus in the political-security pillars will have implications for the economic and socio-cultural pillars too.
The two countries, reported to be Cambodia and Laos, rely on China for trade and investment.
In fact, China is not necessarily a beneficiary of this embarrassing retraction. While a joint ASEAN statement was not publicly issued at the special meeting of foreign ministers, current-affairs magazine “The Diplomat” argued, a bilateral arrangement to resolve the South China Sea dispute – or even a roadmap for such an arrangement – is nowhere in sight, the issue will continue to be blown out of proportion, and discontent is further fostered between China and the claimant states. Through this deleterious process the other successful aspects of the partnership between ASEAN and China were overshadowed, with existing issues unresolved.
Since the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, the diplomatic process and other confidence-building exercises have not gained traction. Notwithstanding the imminent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, brought by the Philippines to contest China’s maritime claims, parties should eventually commit to time-bound negotiations for a code of conduct, in which the regional organisation will provide platforms for dialogue and decision-making. Yet ultimately, such endeavours are only possible if member nations – both claimant and non-claimant states – band more closely together for the future.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.