Striving for Realism in Assessing Sino-ASEAN Disagreements

By Joseph A. Bosco

[Editor’s Note: Since ASEAN’s unprecedented failure to issue a joint communique due to disagreements over the South China Sea, various accounts have surfaced about what happened at the ASEAN foreign minister’s meeting and who is to blame. In the piece below, Joe Bosco points out the differences between a PacNet piece by Donald K. Emmerson from Stanford University and accounts by others including CSIS’ own Ernie Bower.]

In a recent PacNet piece, Don Emmerson provided useful insights on the recent ASEAN fiasco in Phnom Penh.  His analysis bent a bit too far backward, however, in showing “fairness” to China.

If China wields its geo-economic and geopolitical power as a blunt instrument – “I’m big and you’re not” – it will trigger joint push back among Southeast Asians while earning their disrespect.

Of course, that has already occurred and is the major reason most ASEAN countries want a collective approach and a binding code of conduct to implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.  They recognize that, with the military power China has accrued over the past three decades, it no longer feels the need to follow Deng Xiaoping’s admonition “Hide your capabilities; bide your time.”  In the South China Sea it is doing neither.

In fairness to Beijing, however, one must note that China did not manufacture from scratch the division inside ASEAN. Beijing was hardly responsible for ASEAN’s inability to persuade four of its own members to compromise their claims, or to stop some of them from making destabilizing moves. Had the four first resolved their own contradictions, ASEAN could have presented a unified front in its negotiations with China.

So far, the only “division” or  “contradiction” reported from the ASEAN meeting was, on one side, nine countries favoring a unified approach and on the other, Cambodia, carrying China’s water in opposition.  As for the compromising of actual claims, that is a substantive matter to be addressed later through the dispute mechanism that nine members agreed should be developed as a next step–again, an approach opposed by China and Cambodia.  The draft that the nine agreed on “lists the points that, in ASEAN’s collective judgment, a final text should make, including provisions for the settlement of disputes.”

And, let us suppose hypothetically that the substantive claims had already been resolved among Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei–would Beijing then have changed its position on either (a) advancing its own claims or (b) the need for a collective dispute mechanism?

In fairness to Beijing and Phnom Penh, we do not yet know, if we ever will, the extent to which Manila may have shared responsibility for the infighting. Manila did press for a reference to Scarborough Shoal in the communique. Why couldn’t the shoal have been obliquely alluded to?

Perhaps because the situation became potentially explosive and because the geographical distances between the Shoal and the locations of the two claimants are so dramatically divergent.  Again, would China have been willing to accept language that would have been widely interpreted to include the Shoal even if it weren’t explicitly mentioned?

Mr. Joseph Bosco is a  Senior Associate (Non-Resident) of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.


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