Print options

July 20, 2012

ASEAN South China Sea Consensus Elusive

by Simone Orendain

MANILA – Southeast Asian leaders are scrambling to reach consensus on how to handle territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

After disagreement over how to deal with the issue at a summit in Phnom Penh on July 13, where ASEAN leaders failed to release a joint communique for the first time in the group's 45-year history, Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has circulated a proposal for six principles on resolving disputes in the South China Sea. The principles emphasize implementation of a code of conduct, having self-restraint without the use of force, and the seeking of peaceful resolutions.

“We hope this ASEAN statement on the basic principle will be issued as soon as possible, hopefully by today," said Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Michael Tene, who called it a "stand alone statement on the South China Sea -- ASEAN's basic principles regarding South China Sea issues."

While China and Taiwan claim practically the entire resource-rich sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have partial claims. Cambodia, which currently chairs the 10-nation bloc, is a close ally of China.

Huang Jing, an Asia security analyst and director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, says it is unlikely that any group of ASEAN members would take a strong position on the controversy, which makes the six points effective, explaining that a prolonged rift would only weaken both ASEAN and its individual members.

“A statement like ASEAN’s tells everyone, especially the Chinese, number one, ‘This is our bottom line. We’ve reached a consensus. Don’t step on it.’" he said. "Number two, it prevents the situation from getting worse."

Huang also says disputes with China in particular must be settled through “quiet diplomacy,” and that recent conflicts such as the standoff at Scarborough Shoal -- where Manila accused Beijing of poaching endangered species in its waters -- could have been resolved with a simple bilateral deal that would have allowed China to fish Philippine waters in a supervised and regulated manner.

“But it can only come 20 boats per month, you have to follow our law," he said, emphasizing the notion that specific terms of the agreement would have to be arranged "quietly." "You don’t say [it in] public. Public is bound [for] doom. But in return you let us do our drills, get the gas and oil, [which] we’re going to sell to you anyway.”

Despite a broad preference for multilateral talks among ASEAN member states, he says, Malaysia has handled recent disputes with China in a similarly subtle way.