After upending the regional order by boldly declaring his “separation” from America in favor of joining China’s “ideological flow” last year, Philippine president Rodrigo Roa Duterte has assumed the rotational chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year. The Philippines’ newfound regional leadership has come at a particularly crucial juncture, as the ASEAN grapples with a toxic combination of rising tensions in the South China Sea and lingering uncertainty over the future of American policy in Asia. So far, the Trump administration has been largely mum on whether it will continue its predecessor’s robust engagement with the region’s smaller powers.
Nonetheless, there are high expectations that the Philippines’ action-oriented strongman, who has as emerged as the most visible face of Southeast Asian politics since the good old days of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore) and Mahathir Mohamad (Malaysia), will steer the region towards a new phase of integration. That ASEAN is marking the fiftieth anniversary of its founding has provided an additional impetus for a major breakthrough this year, particularly in terms of addressing the festering maritime disputes that threaten to tear the fabric of Asian security architecture asunder.
What is at stake is not only the soul of one of the most successful models of regional integration outside the West, but also the prospects of a rule-based resolution of one of the most perilous flashpoints of our age. Given the central role of ASEAN as the engine of regional integration across the Asia-Pacific Rim, the success and failures of the regional body will inevitably have an impact of the twenty-first century global order.
The virtues of ASEAN
ASEAN was originally conceived based on two strategic imperatives: First, creation of a bulwark against communism during the height of Cold War; second, prevention of the escalation of internecine conflicts between the newly created post-colonial nations in archipelagic Southeast Asia. Founding members such as the Philippines and Thailand, in particular, played a crucial role in facilitating American military interventions during the Vietnam War.
The first imperative was rendered obsolete with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent integration of communist Indo-Chinese states into the ASEAN. The second imperative, meanwhile, continues to be one of the greatest achievements of the regional body.
Since it’s founding, no member-state has gone to war against another. If anything, ASEAN has established a virtual security community, where member states have, so far, renounced the use of force in settling their disputes. In fact, the Indonesian-Malaysian dispute over Ligitan and Sipadan and the Thai-Cambodia dispute over Preah Vihear Temple (Phra Viharn to Thai people) have been largely resolved in accordance to international law. Other regional disputes, namely Indonesia-Singapore maritime borders, have followed a similar path.
Meanwhile, protracted territorial disputes, namely between Malaysia and the Philippines over the energy-rich Sabah, have been largely kept below the threshold of direct confrontation. This is a far cry from the pre-ASEAN dark year of Konfrontasi, when Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore came to blows.
The same, however, can’t be said about the ASEAN’s conflict-management record when the disputes involved member-states and a foreign power, namely China. After two decades of continuous negotiations, the ASEAN and China are yet to finalize a legally binding ‘rules of the road’ in the hotly contested South China Sea. Meanwhile, China is reengineering the maritime heart of Asia in its own image.
Talk and take strategy
As early as 1996, barely two years after China’s usurpation of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, the ASEAN proposed a Code of Conduct (COC), “which will lay the foundation for long-term stability in the area and foster understanding among claimant countries.” Three years later, before the millennial turn, Southeast Asian countries forward the proposal to China, which promised to take it into full consideration. By 2002, however, China agreed to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea, which was simply a declaratory document designed as a prelude to a legally-binding agreement in the near future.
Soon after, the region fell under the spell of strategic complacency, as Beijing offered economic sweeteners and refined its diplomatic lingo in accordance to a new strategy, which Joshua Kurlantzick famously described as “Charm Offensive.” It was not until 2011, however, when the ASEAN realized the importance of returning to the COC issue, as Beijing stepped up its military and paramilitary patrols across disputed waters and set claim, under the notorious “nine-dashed-line” doctrine, to almost the entirety of the South China Sea basin.
Under Indonesia’s chairmanship, the ASEAN agreed upon finalizing the guidelines of a COC. The following year, however, under Cambodia’s chairmanship, the regional body couldn’t even agree to discuss the disputes. Amid widespread outcry among founding members, who accused Cambodia of serving as a proxy of Beijing, the Asian powerhouse promised to speed up the negotiations of the COC during the September 2013 technical working group’s meeting between ASEAN and China in Suzhou, China. By December of that year, however, China embarked on a massive reclamation operation, which transformed rocks and atolls into full-fledged islands that now host a sprawling network of military facilities, advanced weaponries and airstrips.
This was clearly a violation of the spirit and language of the DOC, which encourages claimant states, including China, to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes” and refrain “from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.” Yet, the ASEAN—divided between China hawks and China doves—predictably failed to call a spade a spade.
More than two decades since the ASEAN’s proposal for a COC and fifteen years since China’s signing of the DOC, the two sides are still in the middle of what some skeptics see as never-ending talks that serve as an ingenious delaying tactic for China, which is changing facts on the ground on a daily basis. Under growing pressure to reassert “ASEAN centrality,” the Philippines has promised to fast-track the COC negotiations and finalize a framework agreement by the end of the year.
Under the chairmanship of the Philippines, the ASEAN has scheduled two sets of meetings to hatch out the details of a skeletal COC this year: one in Bali (February) and another one in the Philippines (June). In a surprising announcement, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi recently revealed that the first draft of a COC had been finalized and celebrated what he described as a “clear [diplomatic] progress,” which has made “China and ASEAN countries feel satisfied.”
Yet, as of this writing, no regional official has provided any detail on the elements of the claimed draft COC, such as what is its legal basis and how (and by whom) will it—if ever ratified by parties—be enforced. Adding to the confusion is the deep internal divide within the Philippines. On one hand, Duterte is keen to set aside the Philippines’ landmark arbitration case against China and instead focus on economic engagement and combatting terrorism and drug trafficking in the region.
Many within the Philippines’ security establishment and intelligentsia, however, want the Philippines to reassert the arbitration award as a foundation for negotiation of any COC—a proposal that will predictably be blocked by China-friendly ASEAN members—and place the South China Sea disputes at the center of this year’s regional agenda. At this point, it seems both ASEAN and its rotational chairman are too divided to give China any reason for worry. The regional body risks falling into total irrelevance unless it pulls off a surprising breakthrough later this year.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University, and previously served as a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives. As a specialist on Asian geopolitics and economic affairs, he has written for or interviewed by Al Jazeera, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Diplomat, The Financial Times, and USA TODAY, among other leading international publications.
*This article was also published on The National Interest.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.