Obama faces challenge in forging united front to combat China maritime actions


With the symbolic handshakes and unity photo-op, President Barack Obama’s high-profile summit with Southeast Asian leaders in California this week aims to step up pressure against China’s increasingly worrisome behavior in disputed waters.

Forging a common front and encouraging bolder rhetoric against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, however, will be a challenge among the diverse collection of VIP guests, who did not criticize China by name in past joint summit statements as the disputes flared on and off in recent years.

Decisions by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the bloc they lead, can easily be stalled. ASEAN includes governments aligned either with Washington or Beijing. Only four of its 10 member states are locked in the disputes with China and Taiwan, leading to sometimes conflicting views on handling the long-simmering rifts.

The regional bloc decides by consensus, meaning just one member can effectively shoot down any statement detrimental to China.

In recent years, summit statements have expressed concern over the escalating conflicts and called for freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed territories, but they have rarely gone to specifics.

“I think it will be hard for the U.S. to convince the 10 ASEAN states to adopt any language on the South China Sea disputes that go beyond what ASEAN statements have said in the past,” said Dr. Malcolm Cook of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

With Obama in his last year in office, certain ASEAN member states would probably not concede on any security or economic issue that might antagonize China, an economic lifeline to them, Cook said.

A Southeast Asian diplomat said that government envoys in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, where the ASEAN secretariat is located, have been negotiating the text of a possible joint statement to be issued by Obama and his Southeast Asian counterparts at the end of the two-day summit, which opens Monday at the sprawling Sunnylands estate.

There have been initial differences among the governments on the wording of the statement, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss details of the negotiations with reporters.

Vietnam and the Philippines, whose disputes with China have intensified in recent years, prefer a more detailed reference to the territorial disputes. The Philippines specifically wants to mention international arbitration as an option to resolve the conflicts. Cambodia and Laos, which have close ties with China, have asked the reference to arbitration to be deleted, the diplomat said.

In 2012, Cambodia refused to mention discussions in an ASEAN foreign ministerial summit statement about a shoal disputed by China and the Philippines. An ensuing argument caused the summit to end without a joint statement for the first time since the bloc was founded in 1967.

While the statement can be restrained, the diplomat said any leader can speak freely at the informal talks in Sunnylands.

The Philippines brought its territorial conflicts with China to international arbitration in early 2013 after Beijing refused to withdraw its ships from a disputed shoal under a U.S.-brokered deal. China has refused to participate, but an arbitration tribunal based in The Hague has proceeded to hear the case and plans to hand down a decision this year.

The U.S. summit will showcase Obama’s yearslong effort to reassert American leadership in Asia, where China has risen as a security and economic powerhouse.

Although it’s not a claimant state, the U.S. has declared that it has a national interest in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, a major passageway for global trade.

Obama will emphasize U.S. resolve to promote the rule of law and give assurances that America is a stabilizing presence in the region, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters last week.

“The U.S. will be underscoring the importance of resolving any territorial disputes consistent with international norms and international law … and not through bigger nations bullying smaller ones,” Rhodes said in a veiled reference to China and smaller neighboring countries along the South China Sea rim.

Tensions have escalated in recent years after China transformed seven disputed reefs into islands, some with runways, that could be used to project China’s military might into the heartland of the disputed region. China has claimed it has the right to undertake the massive construction in what it calls its territory, but the U.S. Navy deployed a guided-missile destroyer near one of the islands last year in defiance of China’s territorial claims.

China has been accused of delaying the start of negotiations for a legally binding code of conduct that can deter aggressive actions such as its island construction work. U.S. and ASEAN leaders have sought the early conclusion of such a pact for several years, and those calls are likely to be repeated in this week’s summit.