China Trumps ASEAN in the South China Sea

The Chinese make a mockery of ASEAN solidarity, splitting the association on South China Sea disputes.

Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi participates in a ministerial meeting at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 2
Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi participates in a ministerial meeting at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 2 (AP/Brendan Smialowski)

In the aftermath of the recent ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that was held in Cambodia last week, it cannot be helped but to feel a sense of disappointment about the outcome.

The summit, which was attended by 27 foreign ministers, was intended to end with a decision regarding the simmering tension in the South China Sea, including the conflicting claims that China has with many ASEAN states. For the first time in 45 years, however, there was no final communiqué at the conclusion of the summit. Furthermore, even though ASEAN foreign ministers announced that they intended to agree on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, no such code was produced.

The summit was a prime example of a great power influencing the conduct of a regional organization for its own benefit. The chair of the summit, Cambodia, refused to allow the Philippines to include language in the final communiqué which referred to its recent naval standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal. As decisions made within ASEAN are based on consensus, a final communiqué was not produced due to Cambodia’s decision. Cambodia insisted that such disputes should be managed bilaterally, which is also China’s policy.

“We are not a tribunal to decide the dispute. Here at the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers, we are not a tribunal to adjudicate who is right, who is wrong,” stated foreign minister of Cambodia Hor Namhong.

Cambodia felt that mentioning the Scarborough standoff would compromise ASEAN’s neutrality. When taken in context, this is perhaps an ironic and hypocritical statement as it is believed that China has significant influence over Cambodia. Over the past decade, China has invested billions of dollars into the country — ten times more than the United States.

Furthermore, Chinese president Hu Jintao has recently been to Cambodia during a four day state visit and only a month before the ARF summit a senior party leader made an additional visit to “take strategic approaches to step up the bilateral cooperation to new heights.”

Cambodia is thus perhaps not as neutral as it wants to be perceived.

“China bought the chair, simple as that,” an unnamed diplomat expressed to The New York Times.

When it was suggested that Cambodia was acting in support of China, Namhong responded by stating that his government does not support either side in the dispute.

The failure to come to an agreement about a code of conduct in the South China Sea was a further disappointment. At the end of 2011, ASEAN and China agreed to begin negotiations on an agreement that was meant to be formal and binding. Negotiations, however, quickly stalled, as divisions appeared between members of ASEAN who had competing territorial claims within the South China Sea. China has been hesitant to finalize such as agreement, however, it has stated that it will consider further proposals for a code of conduct “when the time is ripe.”

The United States have been pushing China to agree to a formal binding code based on international law and agreements.

“This will take leadership and ASEAN is at its best when it meets its own goals and standards and is able to speak with one voice on issues facing the region,” stated US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Furthermore, during the ASEAN summit, Clinton was not afraid to voice the US position on territorial tension in the South China Sea.

“Issues, such as freedom of navigation and lawful exploitation of maritime resources, often involve a wide region,” Clinton said. “Approaching them strictly bilaterally could be a recipe for confusion and even confrontation.”

Clinton left no doubts that the US “Asian pivot” was in full swing and that they were willing to exploit the current disputes in the South China Sea to strengthen their own position. She asserted Washington’s right to intervene regionally by declaring that “the United States is a resident Pacific power” while also criticizing “worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and government vessels in connection with disputes among fishermen.”

China’s state run media quickly responded via a China Daily editorial declaring that “the US, as a force from outside East Asia, is not in any position to tell countries in the region how to solve their differences.”

The commentary further affirmed China’s stance that ASEAN is not the appropriate venue to discuss territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

There are two conclusions which can be drawn from this. First, China was able to make a mockery of ASEAN solidarity. While the ARF is not a forum designed to resolve disputes, China was still able to overtly split ASEAN and influence the outcome of the summit. The organization exists as an entity that has stood stalwart against the intrusion of great power influence yet what we have seen this past week is a breakdown in Southeast Asia’s regional autonomy.

“It’s very, very disappointing that at this eleventh hour, ASEAN is not able to rally around a certain common language on the South China Sea. We’ve gone through so many problems in the past but we’ve never failed to speak as one,” expressed Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa.

This event has degraded ASEAN’s credibility as an effective security mechanism and a forum for regional discussion and mediation. At a time when the organization needs to show unity and resolve to follow through with the proposed ASEAN Community by 2015, this occurrence is something that it cannot afford.

Second, it signals further intensification of great power competition between the United States and China. As the US “Asian pivot” picks up speed, China is looking to impede American activity in the region. The Sino-American geopolitical struggle in Southeast Asia is pulling ASEAN in different directions. If ASEAN is unable to ensure that this struggle does not split the group, it may be rendered useless as hegemonic forces increasingly dictate the regional security environment.

“[ASEAN remains] neutral and equidistant in terms of China and the US, avoiding having to choose between the great powers,” according to the former ASEAN secretary general Rodolfo Severino.

However, this may not be entirely accurate, especially in the aftermath of the summit. China’s division of ASEAN may increase the willingness of other states to align closer with the United States, which in turn could encourage China to increase its own regional ties. At this point, ASEAN would no longer be neutral and would be divided along a Sino-American axis.

ASEAN’s banner for this past summit reads: “One community, one destiny.”

In hindsight, this may not have been the most appropriate slogan. However, it nonetheless serves as an important reminder that ASEAN must be perfectly united for it to remain an effective and legitimate regional organization. While perfect neutrality may not be possible, an open and healthy dialogue about the most crucial topics is important. It is thus perhaps fair to say that ASEAN’s willingness to address divisive issues, something it has long been criticized for, is an encouraging sign.

China may have won a tactical victory this past week yet it has not delegitimized ASEAN as a regional security mechanism. The results of the next summit in November and the additional regional ramifications of the Sino-American rivalry, will be of the utmost importance for the future of ASEAN.

This article by Nicholas Clement originally appeared at, July 18, 2012.


  1. The [violation] of puny Philippines is on. Islands within 60 miles of its shores, well within [the] 200 km exclusive economic [zone], with proven oil reserves as big Saudi Arabia have been taken over by Chinese warships. The Philippine municipality of Kalayaan, taken over.

    The Philippines has no ships, planes to assert itself and its

    “The Philippines is intimidating China,” [say] Chinese leaders. Everybody must be laughing Chinese double talk and duplicity.

    The US will help the Philippines now that China is taking over her teritories? Its WW II ally, and 50 years colony? I think not… Pity.

    Of course, when Chinese submaries are seen in the California coast, things will be different.

    We can wait?

    Comment was edited for readability.

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