ASEAN, China and the Oilrig: Whose Failure?

By Bill Hayton

The flags of the ASEAN countries. Source: Wikimedia user Gunawan Kartapranata, used under a creative commons license.

The flags of the ASEAN countries. Source: Wikimedia user Gunawan Kartapranata, used under a creative commons license.

Should ASEAN declare war on China? The question is ludicrous but if you had spent the past 10 days reading commentaries on ASEAN’s summit in Myanmar, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a viable policy option. The general theme of the analysis has been that ASEAN has failed by not seeking confrontation with China over the current stand-off with Vietnam in the South China Sea. This piece will argue the opposite: that ASEAN took an exceptional stance, and one that is sane and sustainable.

ASEAN first made a collective stand on the South China Sea in 1992. Then, as now, the trigger was oil. China had just passed a new Law on the Territorial Sea claiming all the currently-disputed islands for itself. Shortly afterward it had granted an oil concession off the southern Vietnamese coast to a U.S. company. ASEAN was sufficiently alarmed to agree to the Manila Declaration in which it called for “a code of international conduct over the South China Sea.” Twenty-two years later we are still waiting for that code to be completed.

Until two weeks ago ASEAN’s concerns had been focused on the southern part of the sea, particularly the Spratly Islands, the subject of multiple, overlapping claims. Something that has generally not been acknowledged is that at the recent summit in Naypyidaw, ASEAN for the first time took a stance on the Paracel Islands in the northern part of the sea. Unlike the Spratlys, these are only disputed by Vietnam and China.

On May 11, ASEAN’s foreign ministers issued a special statement on the South China Sea. Although the wording was very general, the statement was clearly a response to China’s deployment of an oil rig in waters near the Paracels. The foreign ministers’ resolve may have been strengthened by news that China is currently building a massive artificial island on Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys. That information only emerged in the public domain after the summit but was known to the Philippines and Vietnam several weeks before.

Johnson South Reef was occupied by Chinese forces in 1988, under the noses of the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese still have bases within sight of the reef (on Collins and Lansdowne reefs) and have observed the huge operation. China’s hypocrisy in this is breathtaking. In June 2012, it protested when the Philippines attempted to construct a new primary school building on Thitu (Pagasa) Island, claiming it was a violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that ASEAN and China agreed in 2002. Now Beijing appears to be building what could eventually become an airbase in a far more egregious violation of the Declaration’s injunction “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”

In the days before the Naypyidaw meetings, however, it was far from clear that ASEAN would be able to reach any common position at all. There were fears the foreign ministers could repeat the nightmare of July 2012 when their meeting in Phnom Penh ended in disarray. Internal divisions, poor diplomacy and deliberate obstruction by Cambodia prevented the group from issuing a communique then. It was generally assumed at the time that Cambodia was acting under pressure from Beijing. This time, the 10 governments overcame their internal disagreements and, despite more presumed pressure from Beijing, found consensus.

ASEAN’s critics have pointed out that the statement did not specifically mention China. That is true, but neither did the 1992 Manila Declaration, nor did a 1995 statement issued in response to China’s occupation of Mischief Reef, 108 nautical miles off the Philippines’ island of Palawan. In all these cases, however, the meaning has been clear.

What good would a strong verbal condemnation of China have done anyway? Would it have made the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) pack up its oil rig early? Would the flotilla of coast guard and naval vessels guarding it have melted away into the night? No. The only thing that is going to cause the rig to move before its already-announced departure date of August 15 is a super-typhoon and this is not the right time of year.

What else could ASEAN do? Impose sanctions on its largest trading partner? Send a naval task force up the South China Sea? Blockade China’s coastal ports? None of these things would have the desired effect and the consequences would be calamitous for the region and beyond. In less than three months the rig will be gone. CNOOC will have wasted tens of millions of dollars on a fruitless search for oil and everything will go back to the way it was.

Everything Beijing will have achieved will be negative for its long-term interests: antagonizing Vietnamese opinion, reviving the “China threat” narrative, and unifying ASEAN behind a statement critical of its actions. This is foreign policymaking at its most incompetent.

Mr. Bill Hayton is the author of ‘South China Sea: dangerous ground’ to be published by Yale University Press later in the year. Follow him on twitter @bill_hayton.


5 comments for “ASEAN, China and the Oilrig: Whose Failure?

  1. Kevin
    May 21, 2014 at 10:59

    I agree with your final conclusion. Although what’s scary is that the Chinese may not come away in August thinking that what’s happened is negative. They may come away thinking they’ve won, stood up to Vietnam and others, and defended their indisputable sovereignty territory.

  2. Jonathan London
    May 22, 2014 at 22:27

    Nice piece Bill. Though admirably concise, the last sentence could easily accommodate more adjectives.

  3. JosephTan
    May 25, 2014 at 02:22

    Not necessary, Bill. What China had done on the oil rig is to tell Vietnam “get lost, this is my territory!”

  4. Hong-Phong Pho
    May 27, 2014 at 12:04

    This is as much a test of the U.S. pivot as it is of Vietnam’s or ASEAN’s resolve, if not more so. It’s also as much domestic policy making as it is foreign policy making for China, if not more so. The tens of millions of dollars spent on this drill will yield much more than petroleum-mapping data, at a bargain basement price both financially and politically, if compared to any military drill of any scale. China is literally testing and mapping the baselines of international resolve and consensus in the South China Sea. The rig, a declared instrument of Chinese foreign policy, may be moved from its current position on August 14, to a less (or more) sensitive location within the nine-dashed line claim. This exercise may be repeated until it becomes so routine that reaction will be muted, establishing a new normal for the region.

  5. Bill Hayton
    June 2, 2014 at 22:43

    Thanks for your comments. If I were sitting in the Vietnamese politburo I would be arguing for a very large fishing expedition to be sent to exactly the same waters currently occupied by the rig – the moment it departs. And I would take along the local and international press and make a big splash about the waters returning to Vietnamese control. Then they might salvage something from the present difficulties.

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