News / Asia

ASEAN Struggles with S. China Sea Dispute

Sara Schonhardt
JAKARTA — The secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) says the group needs more cohesion, but will not be held hostage to outside pressure or internal disagreements over the disputed South China Sea.  ASEAN is struggling to dispel concerns about divisions among member states, after a chaotic annual gathering in Cambodia failed to produce an agreement governing actions in the South China Sea.  

Four the of 10 ASEAN members - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - claim parts of those waters, which hold vast fisheries, provide vital shipping lanes for trade and are said to be rich in oil.  But China also says it has sovereignty over nearly the entire area.

The summit earlier this month was expected to help ASEAN achieve a higher profile and cement confidence, but it revealed ongoing disunity among a bloc whose relevance has been questioned by many foreign-affairs observers.

Wednesday, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan acknowledged the group's shortcomings and said it needs to be more agile and effective when dealing with outside powers.  "Our member states will have to survey the landscape and the terrain and the waters very carefully, what could be an issue of controversy, so that we will be able to either avoid them or minimize the impact," said Pitsuwan.

A report released Tuesday by the International Crisis Group says ASEAN's ineffectiveness in resolving the dispute and more aggressive actions by countries claiming sovereignty over parts of the sea raised concerns the region's biggest potential military flashpoint could escalate into armed conflict.

"You have got levels of trust diminishing, but then possible diplomatic options for trying to lessen those tensions are not working very well right now," said analyst Bryony Lau of the Crisis Group in Jakarta.

The Crisis Group report says China is working to exploit divisions among ASEAN members by offering preferential treatment to those that do not side with its rival claimants.

South China Sea Dispute Map
South China Sea Dispute Map

Vietnam raised the issue of the South China Sea in ASEAN's 2010 regional forum.  In 2011 the Philippines took it up with even more fervor.  Lau says that created internal tensions that played on already existent divisions.

"The fact that there are states within ASEAN that have very different interests, have very different priorities, have different relationships with the United States and China, all of those are elements [that] come into play when it comes to ASEAN's capacity to deal with the South China Sea," added Lau.

A six-point declaration drafted by Indonesia on how ASEAN would move forward on the code of conduct on the South China Sea has provided some reassurance, but continued provocations from China have done little to downplay tensions.

China said Sunday it had established a new municipality on a sparsely populated islet it calls Sansha and would deploy a garrison of soldiers to guard the islands it claims.  Vietnam, which says the islet is part of its territory, called the move a "serious violation" of its sovereignty.  The Philippines has also responded to recent aggressions by calling for strong resolve against Chinese rhetoric.

There are fears ASEAN could be in danger of cracking under China's growing influence in the region.  Some also worry that its role in the region poses direct challenges to the United States, which has close relations with some ASEAN members, including the Philippines.

ASEAN has grown in size and economic importance in recent years and is on its way to creating an ASEAN economic community by 2015.  But Secretary-General Pitsuwan said the impasse over the South China Sea would not have a material impact on economic integration.

"We are going full steam toward our economic activities, our economic integration," Pitsuwan noted.  "It will have some psychological impact on the external partners, but as far as ASEAN is concerned, I think our vibrant economy, it is not going to be held hostage to the issue of the disagreement or the controversy of the South China Sea."

Despite the reassurance, analysts say ASEAN needs to make progress on the code of conduct to ensure that the South China Sea does not stoke further divisions and to prevent the dispute from becoming a U.S.-China issue.

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Comment Sorting
by: mark from: sydney
July 27, 2012 10:23 AM
The Chinese Government is a profound threat to world peace and stability: they invaded Tibet and murdered over 1 million tibetans in the process; they trained and armed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia leading to the systematic extermination of a huge part of the population; they actively support North korea and the instability there; they pursue aggressive territorial claims against Japan; they have intitiated multiple border wars with India, Vietnam, and Russia; and now they claim almost the entire South China Sea. One only needs to review one of the published maps showing their claim to arrive at the view that their claim is absurd, illegal, and nothing more than theft and thuggery. The Chinese have absolute contempt for international law, and anyone else. The only language the Chinese understand is the barrel of a gun!

by: Charlie from: UK
July 26, 2012 6:10 PM
I wonder why the Chinese have acted so amicably and patiently towards the Russians when their coast guards fired at one Chinese fishing vessel,causing the loss of one crew member who fell overboard.The Chinese said the Russians have overreacted and the 2 countries should work closely together to avoid future recurrence.Were the Chinese that civilised and tactful when they attacked and killed Vietnamese fishermen in Vietnamese waters which they claim theirs? What happened shows China's double standards.They would back down and bow to someone stronger and bully the weaker ones like Vietnam and the Philippines.The Chinese are just biding their time.When their navy gets mightier,their ships would flock to East Japan Sea,to assert their sovereignty,as they did on Scarborough Shoal and Spratlys recently.Well done China for a great diplomatic move!

by: X
July 26, 2012 9:58 AM
Cambodia is once again China's lapdog.It was China's dog during the Khmer Rouge era, and China dog's now. Nothing has changed. Something need to be done about this.

by: Quang Nguyen from: USA
July 26, 2012 3:09 AM
China now wants all the entire South China Sea for itself, as the first step to enlarge its empire. But, no other country, except Cambodia, would let it happen. Even if the present top Vietnamese Communist leaders voluntarily accept Vietnam to become the fifth little star on the Chinese flag, the Vietnamese people as well as most world superpowers would not let happen. China is not ready to challenge the military supremacy of the US, not to mention its allies. Even Russia is against this aggressive move of China.

by: Dennis from: Philippines
July 26, 2012 2:47 AM
We are ready for armed conflict. Lets just start shooting and get it over with, shall we? The Philippines is not exactly the poor and weak nation you are made to believe. And its ready to take on the small eyed bully who cannot see its litany of strategic weaknesses.

by: Frank from: Japan
July 25, 2012 10:02 PM
The old map of China country which was published in 1904 and republished in 1010 in Shanghai draws only HaiNam be its farthest island in the South, does not include Hoang Sa and Truong Sa (Paracle and Spratly) islands. The first Chinese flag on these island was put in 1909 from where they showed their ambition of invasion. Chinese ancestors confirmed their country boundary by such legal document, why their descendents do such provoking actions!!!

by: Jonathan Huang from: canada
July 25, 2012 7:29 PM
ROC(Taiwan) first claim the authority of south china sea in 1932 and published the official map. ROC then built many concrete monuments on major islands which were illegally destroyed by Viets and Finols. But democratic Taiwan is still the first to administrative south china sea and keep a military base on Taiping island. South China sea belongs to China without doubt. Go check Wikipedia for proves!
In Response

by: Phuc from: Viet nam
July 26, 2012 12:01 AM
u think Wikipedia right ??? u think information on the internet right ??? U think your govement right ???
U said China has much more basises and proofs than my country,if u and your country confident , why China isn't willing to let United Nations solve this disputes ??? while China is a big country.
In Response

by: Frank from: Japan
July 25, 2012 10:19 PM
Let I told you more exact information. The first Chinese flag was put on these islands in 1909. Earlier than your news. Another thing is the older Chinese map which was published in 1904 and republished in 1910 in Shanghai draws Chinese boundary where its farthest island is Hai Nan, does not include Spratly and paracel islands. In other words, until 1909 Chinese just started to show their ambition of invasion.
In Response

by: Mao T from: USA
July 25, 2012 10:08 PM
Mr. Huang has a baseless evident. If you have proper study in school you have never base your information in Wikipedia. Go back to school and ask your teacher!
The historical evidents, daily commune- activities of Viet fishermen, and best evident of all China has attached South Vietnam Navy in 1974 and occupied those islands since then.

What a bunch of coward to take advantage to a smaller country...

by: Anonymous
July 25, 2012 6:11 PM
China is conquering South East Asia, not with big guns but tons of money.It works !

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