A watered-down statement Monday by Southeast Asian nations that failed to mention a landmark legal ruling over China’s claims to most of the South China Sea could diminish the clout of the region’s key grouping, analysts say.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) avoided mentioning in its annual foreign minister’s communique the July 12 ruling by the U.N.-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration, instead offering the equivalent of a slap on the wrist to China, the group’s biggest trading partner, over its moves in the disputed waters.
“The choice was between a weak statement or no statement,” said David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. “This isn’t the first time ASEAN has avoided mentioning the elephant in room in order to get consensus. But it underscores ASEAN’s weakness and raises questions about its relevance.”
The ruling handed ASEAN member the Philippines, which brought the case, a resounding legal victory, but Beijing ignored it, dubbing the outcome “waste paper” and urging ASEAN to avoid bringing it up at the summit.
Wrangling over this resulted in the statement being postponed from its earlier planned release Sunday.
The communique said nations remain “seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments” in the South China Sea. It also said they had noted “concerns” expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
It also emphasized “the importance of nonmilitarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation,” which it said could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.
Media reports said the bloc overcame days of deadlock when the Philippines dropped a request that the statement mention the ruling, after objections from Cambodia, long seen as an ally of China.
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, called the statement “thin gruel,” adding that it was “significantly weaker than previous ASEAN statements.”
“I’m not even sure it’s better than nothing,” Graham said.
“The trend will be read as headed in the same direction as an ostrich diving for sand,” he added. “It is a victory for China, delivered by Cambodia as proxy.”
Graham also blasted the statement for including only a passing reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the tribunal’s ruling said China had violated.
Cambodia is the only state in ASEAN not to have ratified the treaty.
Cambodian leader Hun Sen announced this month that China would give his country almost $600 million in aid to support election infrastructure, education and health projects.
Observers said this was likely to come on the condition that Phnom Penh backed Beijing on issues such as the South China Sea row.
Beijing denied last week that the aid was dependent on Phnom Penh’s support on diplomatic and political issues.
Japan, long Cambodia’s biggest aid donor, has urged ASEAN nations to adhere to the rule of law for peacefully settling territorial disputes.
But this appeal appeared to fall on deaf ears, analysts said.
“It is very clear that Hun Sen places Cambodia’s relationship with China above Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN,” said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. “Japan will be unable to change this situation and should desist with efforts to try to change the Hun Sen administration’s mind on this issue.”
Capie agreed: “Japan will struggle to compete with China for influence in Cambodia. There’s a long history there. Especially at a time when Hun Sen is coming under pressure at home, he knows he can rely on Beijing to look the other way when it comes to repression of opposition figures.”
Ahead of the communique’s release, Japan had also apparently worked to pry summit host Laos — another Chinese ally — away from Beijing’s grip, with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida offering to support the development of Laos’ energy and farming sectors, Kyodo News reported late Sunday.
China reacted angrily to Kishida’s remarks.
“We urge Japan not to interfere with and hype the South China Sea issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in a statement posted to the ministry’s website Sunday. “Japan is not involved in the South China Sea issue, and it has a disgraceful history. It has no right to make irresponsible comments about China.”
But Tang Siew Mu, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS, said that Japan has a critical role to play in offsetting Chinese dominance in the region.
“It is very important for Japan to continue reaching out to Cambodia and Laos, which should be broadened to include trade and investment, and not just focusing on aid and technical assistance,” Tang said. “Such efforts take time for fruition and Japan has to play the long-haul strategic game and not be disheartened by the occasional bumps on the road.
“The alternative,” Tang said, “would be to give up on Cambodia and Laos, which effectively means handing over these two frontline states to China.”