Most Asean countries ‘want to stay out of Beijing’s South China Sea dispute with the Philippines’

Southeast Asian bloc left out mention of international court ruling as Manila was the sole party who wanted it included, says diplomat

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 11:11pm

Most Asean countries want to stay out of the South China Sea dispute between China and the Philippines, says a diplomat with inside knowledge about the negotiations that went on before the bloc issued a joint statement on the matter this week.

The Philippines had pushed to include this month’s international court ruling on the South China Sea in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ joint statement, the diplomat said, but the communique released on Monday left it out in the end.

China and Asean reach deal on uninhabited South China Sea islands

No one but the Philippines insisted that the arbitral ruling be included, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

He said most countries in the bloc, especially those who had no claims in the South China Sea, wished to stay out of the dispute.

The Asean statement carried a section on the contested waters, expressing serious concern over land reclamations and “escalations of activities” in the region, but did not directly challenge China nor mention the ruling.

The bloc had, during a meeting in Laos, been deadlocked over the language of the initial statement and whether to mention the ruling handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on July 12. The court had ruled in the Philippines’ favour, declaring China’s claims to the contested South China Sea invalid.

Asean split on joint response to South China Sea row

“The arbitration was never intended to be included in the statement,” the diplomat said on the sidelines of the Laos meeting on Tuesday.

He added that the impression that China had emerged as the winner and Asean the loser after the statement’s release had caused pressure on the bloc.

“For some small countries, if they think Asean cannot be relied on, they will go to the big powers,” the diplomat said.

On Tuesday, Vice-President Li Yuanchao thanked Cambodia’s visiting National Assembly President Samdech Heng Samrin in Beijing for his country’s “impartial stance” and for “speaking out for justice on the South China Sea issue”.

Earlier reports said that according to Asean diplomats, Cambodia had spoken out in opposition to the inclusion of the ruling in the bloc’s statement.

China and Asean agree to exercise self-restraint in South China Sea, hours after Beijing dodges direct criticism

In 2012, the Asean summit held in Cambodia for the first time failed to issue a joint statement because its members could not agree over the South China Sea disputes with China.

If anyone or anything had divided the Asean, it was the ruling itself, because it wiped out any possible grey areas in the disputes ... and made it impossible for the Asean to take a position in such a take-it-or-leave-it situation
Huang Jing, analyst

In June, the Asean foreign ministers retracted a joint statement expressing concern over the South China Sea situation, after a special Asean-China foreign ministers’ meeting held in Yunnan province.

Philippines foreign minister Perfecto Yasay said that the issuance of the joint communique this time was a victory for Asean.

The bloc had initially been divided but eventually showed its united stance on the need to abide by international law and ensure peace, Yasay said.

“I am just saying this to dispel the reports that have been said that China came out victorious in the Asean meeting because we precisely agreed not to mention the arbitral award,” Yasay told a news conference on Wednesday.

He said the arbitration was a matter between China and the Philippines and that his country did not want to gloat over the win or rock the boat with Asean.

It is no surprise that the Asean omitted the arbitration ruling in their joint statement as the countries each hold very different opinions on the issue, analysts say

The shot heard around the bloc: South China Sea ruling will put China’s ties with Asean to the test

Among the Asean’s 10 members, Cambodia and Laos have sided with China since 2012, while the Philippines and Vietnam have been pushing for a more hardline approach, said Oh Ei-sun, senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. The remaining nations are somewhere in between.

“The Asean way is if there is no consensus among all members, the Asean will not make a statement on it,” he said.

There has been speculation that China, the United States or Japan have been trying to influence the smaller Asean nations and are dividing the 49-year-old bloc from the inside.

But Xue Li, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Asean countries – just like the European Union – had the right to balance their own national interests and the unity of the regional group.

What’s China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and why has it created so much tension in the South China Sea?

“The policy choices of the Asean countries on the South China Sea issue is fundamentally based on their own interest needs, not outside pressure,” Xue said.

Huang Jing, a professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said individual Asean countries were reluctant to back the one-sided ruling on the South China Sea as it would mean that they wholly supported the Philippines. Some of these countries were themselves also locked in maritime disputes with the Philippines, he said.

“If anyone or anything had divided the Asean, it was the ruling itself, because it wiped out any possible grey areas in the disputes, which are necessary for negotiation towards a compromise, and made it impossible for the Asean to take a position in such a take-it-or-leave-it situation,” Huang said.

Time to turn new page on South China Sea, says John Kerry

A strong, powerful Asean would benefit regional peace and stability, which was also in China’s interest, said Xu Liping, an expert in Southeast Asian affairs from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Meanwhile, former Philippine president Fidel V. Ramos has accepted President Rodrigo Duterte’s offer to serve as a special envoy to restart talks with China.

Yasay said he hoped dialogue could be arranged, but did not say whether the Philippines would insist on discussing the arbitration ruling.