VIENTIANE -- With China refusing to back down on its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Japan and the U.S. appear powerless to break the standoff, especially without the help of regional players directly involved in the disputes.
The South China Sea became the central topic at the East Asia Summit here in the Laotian capital on Thursday. Soon after the meeting began, U.S. President Barack Obama called on Beijing to accept a July tribunal ruling invalidating its claims. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pushed back, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later sided with the U.S., saying "the arbitration ruling is binding for all countries involved."
While Japan and the U.S. launched a coordinated attack on China, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations avoided delving too deeply into the issue. Most discussed the importance of abiding by international law, but apparently none directly criticized China. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did not even touch the issue, even though Manila initiated the arbitration proceedings against Beijing.
Duterte's silence was likely a response to human rights concerns voiced by Obama right before the Philippine president's speech, multiple sources said. Duterte has come under fire over extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in his country, and apparently threw out his prepared remarks on the territorial issue to respond to Obama's comments. The plan to have the Philippines, a key part of the dispute, urge China to abide by the ruling at an international summit has run off the tracks.
Japan and the U.S. have locked horns with China at many international events in the last few years, but remain unable to curb Beijing's maritime expansion. Disillusioned ASEAN members are unwilling to align themselves too closely with Tokyo and Washington.
Major powers are no longer able to solve the world's problems through dialogue. The changing political tide in Washington, precipitated by Obama's anticipated exit in January, is a major factor. The current administration is still touting its pivot to Asia, but critics say he has lost the upper hand when it comes to China. It will be hard for him to take a tougher stance on Beijing in the remaining few months of his term.
Another is the waning authority of international law. An arbitration tribunal in July handed a sweeping defeat to Beijing over its claims in the South China Sea, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Japan and the U.S. hoped the decision would curb China. But Beijing has categorically rejected the ruling, choosing instead to take advantage of Obama's vulnerability as a lame-duck president to indermine the existing legal order.
"We are losing hope in Japan and the U.S., and have no choice but to bet on bilateral talks between the Philippines and China," an ASEAN diplomatic source said. But Duterte seems to be approaching Manila's legal victory as a way to draw out economic assistance from Beijing.
China's expansion and disregard for international law has shed light on the limits to traditional dialogue in the current world order. Tokyo and Washington are struggling to make their way in the new landscape.