China stance is central to the battle for Asean's soul

Group's failure to produce a communiqué on South China Sea disputes is raising questions about its unity and the implications for Beijing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 1:17pm


More on this story

Welcome to the battle for Asean's soul. After the historic breakdown within the Association of South East Asian Nations over the South China Sea at its annual meeting in Phnom Penh, a broader debate is unfolding over its future unity and its long-term relationship with China.

The failure of the 10-nation grouping to produce even a routine communiqué amid a squabble over the wording of a reference to recent South China Sea tensions was seen by many analysts - and some of China's state press - as a diplomatic victory in the short term for Beijing, denoting its growing influence.

The breakdown has poisoned prospects for progress this year on a once-vaunted code of conduct between Asean and China to govern tensions - another potential victory for Beijing, which has long demanded one-to-one talks with individual claimants to demarcate the South China Sea even as it dealt with the grouping as a whole.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi repeatedly stressed the importance of China's ties with an integrated and cohesive Asean during a trip to Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia earlier this month. But Asean envoys said little progress was made on restarting shelved talks next month to finalise the code of conduct.

Amid the ongoing tensions, questions are building in staterooms and diplomatic salons: is Asean being permanently weakened by its struggle over the South China Sea? And is a weakened Southeast Asia in Beijing's long-term interests?

Ian Storey, of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), said perceptions that Asean was weak in the face of growing security challenges could force its members to intensify efforts to forge individual security arrangements.

That trend is already under way, and goes beyond America's high-profile "pivot" back to Asia. The Philippines, a South China Sea claimant, is considering requesting 10 large Japanese coast guard cutters under aid talks with Tokyo, while Vietnam is getting Indian naval training to prepare for receiving its first submarines from Russia this year.

"Commentaries in the Chinese press have portrayed the recent breakdown as a victory for China," said Storey. "But what we are talking about could prove merely a tactical victory on the road to something that becomes a strategic setback in the longer term as countries concerned about China's rise go their own way and drag in powers from outside the region in ways that are definitely against China's interests."

Peking University scholar Zha Daojiong said China had no interest in a divided Asean, but it had to be careful that, over the long term, Asean does not evolve like the Arab League, which in recent years backed the creation of a Nato-enforced no-fly zone over Libya and has suspended Syria from membership.

Professor Zha said China had an interest in an Asean that was strong, united and able to lead regional meetings with outside powers, but it must keep to its long-term agenda of peacemaking and conflict avoidance, rather anything more assertive.

Zha said China would never want to see the grouping "championing military action within itself, or against others outside".

The complexity of the South China Sea issue and broader questions over America's role in the region means the region is "an unfolding story", so caution is needed.

"No one knows where it is going to end," Zha said.

"For many years China took a very laid-back approach to the South China Sea ... it is not like that now."

He also said that it was no time to be "too rash" about a regional code of conduct, given the complexity of the South China Sea dispute.

Dr Michael Wesley, executive director of Australia's Lowy Institute think tank, warned that the recent breakdown was alarming, given the strategic importance of lowering tensions.

"We should not underestimate the dangers of a conflict in the South China Sea.

"It is a significant defining issue for Asean and one that is defining the strategic picture between the larger powers."