Exploiting fault lines within ASEAN

Florence Chong's picture

CHINA has easily wedged ASEAN over Chinese incursions into the South China Sea as self-interest again rules the day, causing despair among ASEAN member States . . . 


ASEAN has one again been shown for what it really is — a disparate grouping steeped in self-interest.

ASEAN has long sought to wield influence on the global stage — its strength seen as its collective voice.

But the spat among some ASEAN members with China over the South China Sea has deepened chasms among the 10 member States.

Clearly, China has driven a wedge — dividing what could be loosely described as continental ASEAN from maritime ASEAN. In particular, the smallest and poorest States — Laos and Cambodia — appear to have been “bought” by China through foreign investment and aid.

The widely-reported fiasco that followed the Kunming meeting between ASEAN Foreign Ministers and their Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, again confirms that ASEAN unity is delusional.

Four ASEAN States are in dispute with China over its claims to areas of the South China Sea.  The Philippines has taken its dispute to a United Nations arbitration tribunal at The Hague. The hearing is due to begin any time now.

Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, who was to front a press conference at the conclusion of the Kunming discussions with China, left soon after the meeting. Obviously, he was not prepared to sit alongside the Chinese host, Wang Yi, and having perhaps to contradict him on the upshot of discussions over the South China Sea.

As the temperature over the dispute rises, with China digging in to establish its sovereignty even with the Hague hearing imminent, ASEAN had hoped to deliver a firm word or two to its host.

In a statement later, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said: “They (the Foreign Ministers) highlighted the need to intensify efforts to achieve further progress in the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and substantive development of the Code of Conduct. 

“Minister (Vivian) Balakrishnan noted the serious concerns expressed by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers over developments on the ground, and called on ASEAN and China to continue working together to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea.

“Minister Balakrishnan also reiterated Singapore’s long-standing position on the issue and underscored the importance of the peaceful resolution of disputes, with full respect for legal and diplomatic processes as well as the right of freedom of navigation and over-flight under international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

That statement declares what Balakrishnan probably would have needed to say at the press briefing as Chinese Minister Wang Yi  airbrushed over the dispute. 

What followed the Kunming meeting was ludicrous as statements were issued, then quickly withdrawn. Subsequent news reports around ASEAN pointed a finger of blame at the impoverished Laos.

What transpired at Kunming is further affirmation of the influence of China and of the fragility of so-called ASEAN Centrality — a grandiose concept that the regional group holds dear.

Despair within ASEAN has been ringing out loud and clear.

“What we thought was a hardening of language by ASEAN on China’s island-building was a mirage. The community has more work to do — or break up,” The Manila Times said in a strongly-worded editorial.

“The original founders of ASEAN should remain together as ASEAN and the rest should become members of a newly named group — ASEAN Additionals plus China.”

In an equally strongly-worded editorial, The Straits Times in Singapore, which generally reflects Government opinion, said what it called the “contretemps in Kunming” again demonstrated “what can happen when a big power exploits fault lines within ASEAN for its own benefit”.

“All it takes is one or two members to buckle – when they short-sightedly put self-interest above the strategic interests of the group – for ASEAN’s exertion to appear farcical,” the editorial said.

The Singapore daily continued: “The only diplomatic edge of enduring value is the unity of ASEAN. By taking sides with the powerful for the sake of foreign capital, or falling prey to nationalistic impulses, ASEAN members risk being sidelined individually and collectively.”

Malaysia’s The Star newspaper said: “ASEAN should be concerned with these latest developments. This year, Laos, which is the ASEAN Chairman, will host the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in July. Laos is known to be a strong ally to China.”

The newspaper recalled how, under the Chairmanship of Cambodia in 2012, for the first time in 45 years in ASEAN’s history, disagreement among members prevented the issuance of a final communiqué.

An opinion piece in the Bangkok Post by Thintinan Poingsudhinak, Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, said: “That China has been calling in its chips with smaller pliant ASEAN States and effectively driving a wedge through the organisation over the South China Sea will exacerbate regional tensions and lead to security dilemmas and a dangerous tit-for-tat guessing game in this neighbourhood.

“To avoid future conflict, a rules-based region under mutual accommodation is the only way forward.”   

Hardly surprisingly, Chinese media looked at the whole episode in a quite different light.