Ten Southeast Asian heads of state will hold their landmark annual meeting next week, and four are enmeshed in a maritime sovereignty dispute with their more powerful neighbor China. But the event is widely expected to produce a statement that avoids condemning Beijing.
That’s because those leaders, even in Vietnam and the Philippines where frustration is running high this year after a series of incidents, hope China will eventually sign a code of conduct aimed at preventing maritime accidents and because some of the 10 countries need Chinese economic aid, scholars say.
Heads of state from the 10 countries, who will convene October 31-November 4 at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, will probably issue a statement that avoids fingering China directly and instead plays up common values, the experts believe.
“The summit itself is very cautious,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia. “I expect a boilerplate, ‘freedom of navigation, settle matters peacefully.’”
Spirit of cooperation despite hostilities
ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam dispute with Beijing’s Communist leadership parts of the South China Sea, a 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway that’s rich in fisheries and fossil fuel reserves. China has taken a lead over the past decade by landfilling small islets for military use.
A Chinese survey ship spent months this year in waters where Vietnam is looking fuel under the sea. Chinese coast guard ships patrolled Malaysian-claimed waters for 258 days over the year ending in September, one think tank found. In early 2019, hundreds of Chinese boats surrounded disputed islets occupied by the Philippines.
But ASEAN’s 2019 chair Thailand hopes to “disarm” China, Thayer said. Thai officials may have worked behind the scenes to pick friendly wording for any summit statements next week, he said.
Beijing, if feeling welcome, might push harder for an ASEAN-China code of conduct covering the contested sea. China has suggested it could be finished by 2021 despite past fears that the code would weaken its sovereignty claims. China had stalled talks on a code before 2016. Analysts say sovereignty disputes still make it hard to craft a legally binding document.
A code might use vague language, for example, on the scope of the sea in question and discourage involvement from neutral states outside Asia, Thayer said.
This year’s summit statement may note concern about recent events in the sea and reiterate intent to keep working on the code of conduct, Thayer said.
Vietnam probably wants sterner language in the 2019 summit statement, said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Vietnam speaks out regularly against China due to deep historical differences over territory.
“I think that Vietnam is pushing the multilateral framework as the battlefront for Vietnam to exert sovereignty in the South China Sea and to denounce or to condemn any behavior that can go against Vietnam’s sovereignty.” Nguyen said.
Cambodia could block ASEAN from blaming China, he said. Three years ago, the longtime friend of Beijing stopped ASEAN from mentioning that year’s international arbitration court ruling against China, over the legal basis of its maritime claims. Cambodia lacks a South China Sea claim and accepts Chinese development aid.
Vietnam will have more sway over ASEAN next year when it becomes the chair. China will find it harder at that point to avoid criticism, Thayer said.
Eventually progress on a code may fall to meetings between China and individual ASEAN countries, Thayer said.
Suspicion among Filipinos is mounting this year over China’s growing presence in the disputed sea’s Spratly Islands where Manila controls 10 features. The Philippine foreign minister called this month for a formal protest against China for making “multiple passes” near one Philippine-held islet, Second Thomas Shoal.
However, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte takes a friendly view toward China, landing his country pledges of $24 billion in Chinese aid and investment. China agreed this year to explore jointly with the Philippines for undersea oil and take just 40% of any discoveries.
“For the Philippines, there’s already agreement to go ahead with a joint exploration, so I don’t think the Philippines would want to be seen as an unfriendly country towards China,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
The Philippines will instead hope ASEAN focuses its 2019 statement on speeding up the code of conduct, Araral said. A June 9 collision between Philippine and Chinese vessels added impetus to signing the code.
Elsewhere around the sea, China with the world’s second largest economy is helping Brunei’s economy diversify away from selling oil. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad joined a Chinese Belt and Road Initiative summit earlier this year, meaning his country would be in line for Chinese infrastructure aid.