Asean's old rifts with China widen in Phnom Penh
by Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation, April 9, 2012
Over the past decades, the Philippines used to be benign with its defence strategy over the claims in South China Sea.
Domestic turmoil, economic down-turn and southern rebellions kept the country at arm's length on this key security issue. However, since July 2010, the government under President Benign Aquino III has displayed assertive foreign policy postures in the relations with the US and China - which has currently moved in an opposite direction. At the last week's Asean summit in Phnom Penh, the Philippines unmistakably emerged as the most critical and loudest voice against China over the maritime territorial disputes. Even strong positions normally held by Vietnam regarding its claims, which has fought numerous wars during their thousands of years of adversarial relations, looked pale by comparison.
Manila's new found confidence harked back to the Cold War when the country was the center of regional power with substantial and active American presence at Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base. Obviously, the former American colony is trying to be the game changer extraordinaire within Asean amidst the fast changing regional landscape. With such a determination from a founding member, the latest round of discussions among the Asean members over this sensitive topic was no longer business as usual. Their positions on China are more difficult to manage than ever before. That has been the trend for a while after the US State Secretary Hilary Clinton declared in July 2010 that it was in the US national interest to see a peaceful settlement of the disputes. Soon after, Asean and China reached consensus in Bali over the guidelines of declaration of conducts of South China Seas (2002) after exactly a decade of negotiations.
Building on this progress, the Asean senior officials met four times to discuss "possible elements" of code of conducts (COC) in the South China Sea since last November. "Possible elements" was used instead of "terms of reference" after China's objection. Asean hopes to finalize them by the July ministerial meeting before discussing with the Chinese counterpart. In recent months, anxious Beijing has sent a strong signal requesting joint deliberations on the COC but Asean was mute. At the summit, the Philippines and Vietnam objected strongly to have China taking part at this juncture. As such, it is doubtful whether Asean and China can actually agree, let alone sign, on the COC before the next Asean Summit planned in mid-November under the Cambodian chair. In the Chinese media, "the rule of conducts" has already become a preferred term used to refer to the COC. In the draft, Asean has linked the key COC elements with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, among others. The Philippines has already proposed the setting up of a joint cooperation area on the Spratlys including a joint permanent working group that would operationalise activities in the disputed areas. But there was no consensus within Asean.
At the Phnom Penh summit, China surprised Asean with a proposal to establish an eminent persons and experts group (EPEG) to discuss the COC. The EPEG will comprise 10 members, five each from China and Asean which will include the Jakarta-based Secretariat. Asean would definitely turn down the proposal as China failed to consult beforehand. Furthermore, it is a track two discussion while the grouping wants to concentrate on the official mechanisms first before going further. The proposal is also deemed divisive as it discriminates the other half of Asean.
In more ways than one, China and Asean have now realized that the frequent debates without an acceptable and workable framework of peaceful settlement and joint cooperation will only further complicate the issue and hold their longstanding mutual trusts hostage. Worse still, it can invite further involvement of outside players and dispute settlement mechanisms. Presently, Asean positions and views on the disputes are quite diverse comprising moderate and hard-lined varieties among claimants and non-claimants. Their differences surfaced after the so-called "Aseanization" efforts began in 1992 abruptly shifted to an open-end internationalized process in 2010 during the chair of Vietnam. Abilities to bring back the Asean-China mainstream - if it is possible at all - would now depend on the grouping's ability to speak with one voice and China's willingness to engage Asean as a group.
Unlike the Philippines' confrontational prepositioning, another prominent claimant, Vietnam, was more subdued in Cambodia, its close ally for decades. As if to compensate for the conspicuous absence of comments this time, Vietnam took the opportunity to introduce to the Asean leaders, the next Asean secretary general, Vice Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh eventhough the current Asean chief, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, still has nine-month to go. The veteran diplomat served as his country's permanent representative to the UN before taking up the current position. He will succeed Surin, who was openly recruited in Thailand, on January 1, 2013 which will last five years.
As the Asean chair, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wanted this summit to highlight the success of 45-year-old organization in integrating all countries in Southeast Asia as well as his leadership in the grouping. That explained why Hun Sen pushed to issue the Phnom Penh Declaration on Asean and his statement on the 45th anniversary of Asean with contents taken in parts and whole from the roadmaps of Asean Community, without which the summit could easily be overwhelmed by the euphemism on outcomes of April 1 by-election in Myanmar. At first, the poll outcome, which was applauded by Asean and the international community, along with the call for ending sanctions was supposed to be issued as a separate statement to highlight Myanmar's good news but later it was just included in the Chairman's statement.
Besides the chair's agenda, the Phnom Penh summit also mirrors the future strategic competition in the region among major powers, mainly the US and China, through their friends or foes. Despite Cambodia's efforts to avoid taking up the South China Sea disputes knowing its sensitivities, President Aquino and Foreign Minister Del Rosario however decided to speak up much to the chagrins of their colleagues. At the press conference wrapping up the summit, Hun Sen was visibly not happy with the media focus on the perceived roles of China and Cambodia over this issue. Hun Sen knows that if this sentiment continues, it will impact on his chairmanship and Cambodia's budding relations with China and longstanding fraternal ties with Vietnam, not to mention Asean and the regional's stability as a whole.