The historic Sunnylands “special” summit held Feb. 15 and 16 between U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations produced the Sunnylands Principles. According to the preamble they “will guide our (U.S.-ASEAN) cooperation going forward.” The principles repeated many oft stated general pledges and platitudes but also broke new ground by the U.S. publicly agreeing to some rather lofty ASEAN goals. These include a commitment to adhere to the ASEAN Charter, and to ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms for the evolving regional architecture.

However, for some of the principles, the gap between their realization and current reality is huge. Indeed, it may be that some of the ASEAN leaders do not realize what they have agreed to — or the U.S. interpretation thereof. Or maybe they do — and have a different interpretation of their meaning or do not intend to strive to reach them during their tenure.

Let’s look at some examples like the commitments to “democracy” and to “freedom of navigation.”

Principle No. 4 in the Sunnylands Declaration solemnly proclaims the parties’ “commitment to ensure opportunities for all of our peoples, through strengthening democracy, enhancing good governance and adherence to the rule of law, promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, encouraging the promotion of tolerance and moderation, and protecting the environment.”

This sounds wonderful. But ASEAN includes communist dictatorships, military juntas, authoritarian pseudo-democracies and a sultanate. Many members have rather poor recent “human rights” records — at least according to the U.S. interpretation of the term — and their domestic civil liberties are far from the ideal. It is ludicrous to suggest that all ASEAN governments are committed to “strengthening democracy” and “promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This is not to judge these systems of governance — only to point out the reality of how far the region would have to go to satisfy this principle — at least in U.S. eyes.

Or take principle No. 8 : “Shared commitment to maintain peace, security and stability in the region, ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas, and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce as described in the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as well as non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities.”

To start with, “militarization,” while frequently bandied about nowadays by the U.S., remains undefined — it is “in the eye of the beholder.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “militarization” as “to give a military character to or to adapt for military use.” Under this definition all the claimants to and occupiers of Spratly features — China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — have already militarized them. Indeed, all have stationed military personnel there and built airstrips and harbors that can accommodate military aircraft and vessels — and have done so.

But is occasional military use all right? If so, what is “occasional” military use? What if that military use is for humanitarian purposes such as search and rescue or disaster response? Does the intent of the use matter — and who decides? How about if it is “for defensive purposes only” as China argues regarding the missiles it has placed on Woody Island in the Paracels, and an argument that the U.S. uses frequently to justify its forward deployment of military forces and assets in Asia?

The “creme de la creme” of false hopes and disingenuousness is contained in the clause, “including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas.” For the U.S., this phrase means “freedom” for its military vessels and aircraft to undertake intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes, exercises and “shows of force” in the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones of the ASEAN countries — as it does now in China’s EEZ.

But seven of the 10 ASEAN parties — Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — have laws which violate “freedom of navigation” as enshrined in UNCLOS. According to the U.S., these violations include excessive straight baselines, security jurisdiction in a contiguous zone that extends 12 nautical miles beyond the territorial sea, prior notification regimes for entrance of warships into their territorial sea, or the most egregious — a ban on military exercises and maneuvers in their 200-nautical-mile EEZ without their permission. Between fiscal years 2011 and 2015, these “violations” have been challenged physically by U.S. “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) using warships and military aircraft. Thailand also requires prior permission for military exercises in its EEZ and that regime will presumably be the subject of a future U.S. FONOP. The point is that it is simply not realistic to expect all these countries to comply with U.S. interpretations of a treaty it hasn’t even ratified itself.

The summit was supposedly intended to help forge unity among ASEAN vis a vis China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea. It is not clear that this objective was achieved. There was no mention of China or even the South China Sea in the Sunnylands Declaration, nor was there any concrete plan for moving forward.

But the summit was also meant to demonstrate U.S. economic and security interests in the region, and that the U.S. was not about to yield those interests to China. This it may have accomplished. Indeed, that the Obama administration could organize this meeting in a few months underscores the ASEAN leaders’ recognition of its symbolic importance. But there was little new in the public document and some clearly unrealistic goals.

Only time will tell if this declaration — like its 2002 ASEAN-China predecessor, the Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea, which contains some of the same elements — will be rendered impotent in the face of frequent and widespread violations.

Mark J Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China

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