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Mixed Reviews for ASEAN Stance on Maritime Dispute


FILE - ASEAN foreign ministers pose for group photo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Aug. 6, 2015.
FILE - ASEAN foreign ministers pose for group photo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Aug. 6, 2015.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is getting mixed reviews for its communique on the South China Sea issue.

The 10 member nations, at last week's ministerial meeting and regional security dialogue, cobbled together, at the eleventh hour, a compromise statement on forging a binding code of conduct in the disputed waters – something ASEAN has been discussing for more than a dozen years.

“ASEAN tried very gingerly to strike a balance between the competing demands of the United States and of China. And the result has been the language in the final joint communique,” said Oh Ei Sun, a former political secretary to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Many in the region view any communique as better than none at all, which happened in 2012 when Cambodia was ASEAN chair.

Importance of document

The issuance of the document means ASEAN “as a whole isn't under China's thumb,” author and Indonesia government consultant Jamil Maidan Flores writes in the Jakarta Globe.

“China has achieved its objectives,” said Benjamin Ho, research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. “ASEAN countries have only been able to protest, but we really have not been able to prevent China's actions.”

Of some significance for a major document from ASEAN, frequently criticized as ineffective because it is usually indecisive, is that its regional forum communique, for the first time, “mentioned succinctly the divergent views among the member countries,” Kavi Chongkittavorn, assistant group editor of the Nation Media group, wrote in an opinion piece published Monday.

ASEAN maintains a permanent dialogue with both China and the United States.

ASEAN members Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are seen as usually backing China's positions in the association. And the land reclamation issue has further polarized ASEAN.

Stance on claimants

Beijing has long insisted that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be settled between claimants, but recently has been partly softening its stance in ASEAN dialogues.

Four ASEAN members have competing claims in the waters with China: Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. Additionally, China's nine-dash line overlaps exclusive economic zones of two additional ASEAN states: Indonesia and Singapore.

Whether there has been a fundamental shift for ASEAN will be clearer when the the leaders of the organization reconvene in December.

In April, the chairman's statement for their meeting accused China, but not by name, of eroding trust and confidence as a result of its land reclamation projects that “may undermine peace, security and stability.”

The communique issued at last week's foreign ministers' forum contains similar language. It also calls for moving discussion forward on reaching legally binding maritime rules of behavior in the contested waters.

“There has been quite a bit of talk about this Code of Conduct which Asian countries are quite anxious to actually have one implemented. So I think we are looking at that moving forward,” research fellow Ho told VOA Monday. “But, I think at the same time, CoC should not be seen as a be all and end all for resolving the situation in the South China Sea.”

During a trip that took him to Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that Washington will not tolerate any navigation restrictions in the disputed sea.

US reassurance

Those are reassuring words in a nervous region looking for U.S. security guarantees and strategic protection.

"John Kerry's presence at ASEAN “reinforced America's rhetoric concerning its Pacific presence and its ongoing interest towards Asia,” said Ho.

But ASEAN members also cannot afford to alienate Beijing “because of China's explosive growth which is leading the economic development of the region,” said Oh, who is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

Both Ho and Oh emphasize that Asian nations want to see more emphasis from Washington on economic ties rather than just a political presence. They say a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal would mark important progress in American economic engagement.

In what had been expected to be a concluding round, trade ministers from the 12 countries in the TPP failed to reach an accord in Hawaii on July 31.

No date has been set for another round of negotiations.