The Multilateralist

Is ASEAN sinking on South China Sea?

Is ASEAN sinking on South China Sea?

Last week’s ASEAN meetings–and the broader East Asia Summit–seem to have done little to resolve the regional organization’s internal debate over how to respond to China’s claims to the South China Sea. ASEAN members Cambodia and the Philippines, in particular, resumed their months-long dispute over whether and how to broach the issue in multilateral fora. 

Writing in The Australian, journalist Philip Bowring argues that ASEAN has likely reached the end of its usefulness on the maritime dispute. What’s needed, he insists, is a more cohesive grouping of regional states to oppose China’s ambitious claims:

More talk at ASEAN meetings about codes of conduct is delusional stuff. The code, while loved by ASEAN foreign ministers, has done nothing to shield Vietnam and The Philippines from Chinese incursions into their 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones. Malaysia and Brunei have so far escaped direct Chinese attention thanks to their small EEZs and island claims, but China’s long arm will reach their waters soon enough.

These countries plus Indonesia need to set up a special group, linked to ASEAN, that can build consensus on negotiating with China. Indonesia has to be a part because as the largest southeast state and implied leader of the Malay world it has much to lose diplomatically from China dominating the smaller states.

In this interview, ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan puts a more positive spin on recent developments:

I would say we have come a long way from July this year. Because July this year we could not issue a communique at all on this issue because of this issue.

Now the way in which the issue was brought up was very civil, was very courteous to each other. We have our interests in the stability and security of this particular body of waters. That’s pretty much the tone.