Southeast Asian leaders divided over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea will seek to paper over frayed ties and present a united front at a summit with world powers in Laos next week, observers say.
China’s Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are among delegates due to join US President Barack Obama for his swansong in Asia at the three-day Asean summit starting on Tuesday.
The meeting of the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its global partners at the “East Asia Summit” follows the G20 summit in Hangzhou ( 杭州 ) on Sunday and Monday.
The Asean summit, the first to be held in Vientiane for 12 years, takes place amid disarray over members’ opposing stances on China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have conflicting claims with Beijing on the resource-rich area through which US$5 trillion of trade passes annually. Cambodia and Laos – large beneficiaries of China’s foreign aid and investment largesse – have displayed staunch support for Beijing.
Observers say the split will remain at the top of leaders’ minds when they meet, even as they pledge unity publicly in the presence of global leaders.
“The Asean leaders will tiptoe among each other…with Obama and Li Keqiang present, they will play the game of unity, when actually there’s none,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian opposition lawmaker who chairs the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights group.
Santiago said the ostensible goodwill at the talks would belie “the fact that the US and China are using proxies in the region to fight their battles”.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an Asean expert at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, said: “We are likely to see some kind of sweeping of the South China Sea under the ‘Asean unity’ carpet again.”
This is the first summit of Asean national leaders since the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s landmark ruling in July that Beijing’s claim had no legal basis.
Singaporean ambassador-at-large Ong Keng Yong said fireworks were unlikely as the Philippines, which filed the case, had indicated it would not bring it up.
The case was filed in 2013 during the tenure of the former Philippine president Benigno Aquino. Current president Rodrigo Duterte has distanced himself from his predecessor’s hawkish stance towards China.
“Without this opening, it will not be easy for China and the US to launch into their respective firing points without appearing as unduly insecure,” Ong, a former Asean secretary general, said.
But “the American side will surely underscore the sanctity of freedom of navigation and overflight, rules-based order and international law,” he said.
China fiercely rejected the ruling, and successfully manoeuvred through its allies Laos and Cambodia to ensure a communiqué issued at an Asean foreign ministers’ meeting held weeks after the ruling did not mention the case explicitly.
Beijing stepped up construction in the disputed waters even as the case was being heard, a move seen by the United States as part of a wider effort by China to assert regional dominance while disregarding international maritime law.
Philippines says omission of South China Sea arbitration ruling in Asean statement ‘not a Beijing victory’
Analysts say Asean leaders will go all out to avoid a repeat of the 2012 summit in Cambodia, where the bloc failed to issue a communiqué because of deep disagreements about the sea dispute.
Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at the Philippines’ De La Salle University, said the final statement at the Laos meeting would “not be too inimical towards China”.
“We may hear words like ‘expression of serious concern on the South China Sea’ but I extremely doubt that the arbitration case at The Hague or the final award at The Hague will be mentioned at all,” Heydarian said.
He added: “It will prove that China has a tremendous amount of influence to contain the diplomatic fallout that was expected after the Hague ruling.”
Despite the large shadow cast by the territorial dispute, Asean leaders will use the summit to discuss security threats and economic cooperation, experts said.
“There will be direct references to provocation by North Korea and warnings to Pyongyang not to push its luck too far, as well as the need for Asean and its dialogue partners to work in a more concerted manner to combat the terror threat to the region,” said Singapore’s Ong.
The bloc in 2015 launched the Asean Economic Community blueprint, which seeks to create a common market with “free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labour and free flow of capital”.
On the agenda also is the roll-out of a new master plan on greater connectivity in the 10-nation bloc.
Mustafa Izzuddin, a researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said “economic diplomacy, interdependence and integration will also feature prominently in the summit meetings”.
Also in focus will be that the meeting is Obama’s last Asean outing before his term ends in January.
Thitinan said Obama would use the platform to emphasise his rebalancing initiative to Asia. “But many in Southeast Asia fear that the Obama rebalance has lost momentum and will lose whatever thrust that is left with the new administration next year,” he said.