International ruling has Southeast Asia divided on China, yet again

By Dien Luong   July 14, 2016 | 08:37 pm PT
International ruling has Southeast Asia divided on China, yet again
Activists who travelled to disputed Scarborough Shoal and were blocked by Chinese Coastguard a few months ago, watch an announcement by a government official, regarding a ruling on the disputed South China Sea by an arbitration court in Hague, in favor of Philippines, at a restaurant in Manila, Philippines July 12, 2016.Photo by Reuters/Erik De Castro.
Vietnam and the Philippines' efforts to build up support in ASEAN face an uphill battle.

The failure of Southeast Asia to issue a joint statement on the rejection by an international court against China’s claims to vast swaths of the South China Sea has yet again epitomized the already growing rift among member states, analysts say.

That could also have a bearing on the enforcement of the recent headline-grabbing ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the analysts say.

But at the end of the day, the lack of a joint statement from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on this matter should come as no surprise to member states of a regional grouping where China has been wielding its economic and military clout more overtly than usual.

“We have an expression ‘know where your bread is buttered’ and countries like Cambodia and Laos are more concerned about losing Chinese support,” said Dennis McCornac, a Hanoi-based analyst. “For them it is all about economics.”

The court on Tuesday ruled in favor of the Philippines, which brought the case in 2013, by dismissing Beijing’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the strategically important and resource-rich waters.

The 10-member ASEAN bloc reportedly debated whether it would speak out about the ruling. But AFP on Thursday quoted a Southeast Asian diplomat as saying that the bloc could not find common ground on the issue.

"ASEAN officials had prepared a draft text but there was no agreement to release a joint statement," the diplomat told AFP, adding that China was believed to have leaned on its ASEAN allies Laos and Cambodia to scuttle any statement. "Some ASEAN countries are definitely not happy. Beijing's action can be seen as interference in ASEAN's centrality," the source said.

China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims through maps featuring a so-called nine-dash line — a demarcation that includes about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea. But these maps have been emphatically rejected by international experts and fly in the face of competing claims by four ASEAN members.

While Vietnam and the Philippines remain outspoken opponents of China’s territorial claims, Cambodia and Laos, Hanoi’s historically close allies which are also among the world's poorest, have risen to Beijing's economic bait and budged on criticizing its major benefactor, analysts say.

“China’s ability to divide ASEAN on this issue has been clear for four years,” said Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In 2012, Cambodia, as ASEAN chair, came under fire for blocking the customary joint statement at a regional summit in Phnom Penh - the first time it has happened in ASEAN's 45-year history. At a recent ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers Meeting held in Yuxi, China, media reports suggested that China, capitalizing on its economic largesse to Laos, railroaded the landlocked nation, the current ASEAN chair, into preventing the issuance of a joint statement by the regional grouping on the East Sea. Just last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also toed China's official line in dismissing the legitimacy of the court in The Hague, saying he would not support any judgment by it.

“There was a time when its members made ASEAN centrality a cornerstone,” said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst at the National War College in Washington D.C. “Today, that core concept is jettisoned for the sake of some development projects. It's truly disgraceful.”

The absence of an ASEAN statement on the ruling comes at a time when a collective response from the regional grouping would be significant.

“It is critical,” Poling said. “The ruling can only be enforced by the collective weight of international opinion. That is what leads the overwhelming majority of arbitral rulings to be abided by, at least in spirit if not in law,” he said.

On the bright side, however, some analysts say they are hoping that ASEAN can still issue a statement after the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting later this month. But to hash it out, individual ASEAN members must now issue statements in support of the ruling.

So far only the Philippines and Vietnam have done so. Singapore, Malaysia, and Myanmar have issued vaguely positive statements noting the ruling; while Indonesia and Thailand issued statements that didn’t even mention it, which is “especially troubling given Indonesia’s stake in the South China Sea”, Poling said.

“It will be deeply troubling if states invested in preserving international law and norms are unwilling to stand up and be counted out of fear of Chinese reprisals.”

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