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Divided ASEAN hands China diplomatic coup

Regional group is fading into irrelevance as the supposed engine of integration

| China
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, sixth from right, poses with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers during the closing ceremony of the 50th ASEAN Regional Forum summit in Manila on August 8.   © Reuters

The annual regional forum and related meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Manila brought together 27 foreign ministers from around the Asia-Pacific region -- but the outstanding result was a major diplomatic victory for China.

Beijing managed not only to deflect criticism of its aggressive behavior in the adjacent waters of the South China Sea, but also to reshape ASEAN's regional agenda in its own image. Once again, the 10-country Southeast Asian bloc has failed to rise to the occasion, placing few constraints on China's maritime ambitions.

Under the Philippines' chairmanship, the regional body has effectively echoed China's position on the South China Sea, where Beijing is continuously expanding and upgrading artificial islands intended to reinforce its contentious claims to sovereignty. There are growing concerns over the likely deployment of advanced military hardware to newly constructed airstrips, ports and dual-purpose facilities in the Spratly and Paracel chains of islands.

Yet ASEAN failed to come up with a consensus agreement on reclamation and militarization. If not for Vietnam's aggressive lobbying (with Malaysia's support), the regional body would probably not have mentioned the issue at all. Vietnam also called on ASEAN to advocate a "legally-binding" Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that would place severe constraints on Chinese activity. Irked by Hanoi's proactive diplomacy, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi canceled a scheduled meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh.

During the ASEAN meetings, which ended on Aug. 10, China deployed an effective divide-and-conquer strategy, leveraging its close relationship with Cambodia, which has consistently opposed any indirect criticism of China's activities in the disputed waters. Beijing also took advantage of its warming ties with the Philippines, ASEAN's current chair, which has explicitly soft-pedaled the South China Sea issue since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June.

Since ASEAN operates on the basis of consensus, every member wields a de facto veto. Thus, opposition from one country is enough to prevent a unified regional approach on a high-stakes geopolitical issue such as the South China Sea.

During a press conference on Aug. 8 the Philippines' Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano admitted that he was reluctant to mention topics, including reclamation activities, that could rile China. "I did not want to include it. It was not reflective of the situation. They're not reclaiming land anymore, there are reclamations in the past and have not started reclaiming again, and there is a general statement [from the Chinese], so I accepted it," the Filipino diplomat said.

This amounts to an explicit recognition that the Philippines is toeing China's line as ASEAN's chair. However, reclamation activities have not stopped -- the latest satellite imagery and analysis by the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reveals uninterrupted Chinese activities in the area.

Cayetano, who was the unsuccessful running-mate of Duterte in a presidential election in May 2016, tried to downplay the necessity for mentioning the issue, asserting that all the claimants to South China Sea territory are engaged in one form of reclamation or another. He appeared oblivious of the scale of China's island-building spree, which is of an entirely different order of magnitude from those of other littoral states, including Vietnam.

In a final communique, drafted under Cayetano's chairmanship, ASEAN tried to strike a compromise by stating that it "took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers [Vietnam and Malaysia]" on the reclamation and militarization issue. In short, there was no consensus even on whether ASEAN is concerned about the issue.

Naval footprint

While the communique mentioned the "importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants," it also zeroed in on the activities of "all other states." This looks like a subtle criticism of other regional powers, especially the United States, which has stepped up its naval footprint in the area as part of its so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations.

This meshes neatly with China's call for non-claimant states and external powers to stay out of the issue, leaving the management of the various disputes exclusively to China and the ASEAN countries. "Outsiders are only out to stir trouble, and ASEAN and China should unite to stop this," Wang said during a two-day visit to the Philippines in late July, when he was warmly welcomed by Duterte and Cayetano.

In another major concession to Beijing, the communique made no mention of a 2016 judgment against China in a case brought by a previous Philippines administration in the international Permanent Court of Arbitration, or of a legally-binding Code of Conduct. As Cayetano made clear, China does not favor a legally-binding document, instead preferring a norms-based nonaggression pact that would set out a consensus agreement on acceptable forms of behavior in the South China Sea.

However, it is far from clear what the point would be of such a normative Code of Conduct, which would be along the lines of an existing 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Both have been signed by China with little or no impact on its reclamation activities.

Emboldened by ASEAN's acquiescence, China even suggested a "precondition" for the negotiation of a Code of Conduct -- a framework for which was signed by ASEAN and Chinese diplomats in early August, amid much fanfare. According to Wang, further negotiation would have to be based on "the condition that there is no major outside interference" in the South China Sea. In effect, China is now openly demanding that ASEAN must push the U.S. out of the disputed waters.

Perturbed by China's assertiveness, foreign ministers from the U.S., Australia and Japan released a joint statement, calling on "China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal's 2016 award in the Philippines-China arbitration, as it is final and legally binding on both parties." The three ministers "voiced their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions."

Cayetano effectively rejected the call, insisting that it is for the Philippines to decide how to approach the issue. Echoing China's diplomatic line, Cayetano stressed that, "the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines is between China and the Philippines."

As in April, when Duterte oversaw an earlier ASEAN statement on the South China Sea, the words "serious concern" were missing from the communique, although they have appeared in ASEAN statements on the issue since 2014. In effect, ASEAN is parroting China's position that the situation in the disputed waters is broadly stable.

In a surreal turn of events, the Philippines is effectively shielding Asia's biggest power against criticism in major regional multilateral forums. At this point, the priority of the Duterte administration is to solidify trade and investment relations with China in exchange for acquiescence in the South Chain Sea.

The upshot is that ASEAN is fast fading into irrelevance as the supposed engine of regional integration. Meanwhile, China remains undaunted in its quest to dominate adjacent waters as an extension of its maritime and territorial domain.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and columnist. He is the author of "Asia's New Battlefield: U.S., China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific," and the forthcoming book "Rise of Duterte."

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