The South China Sea disputes have severely challenged Asean. At the Asean-China meeting held in Kunming (昆明) in June 2016, a senior Chinese official, sitting beside Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅), bluntly told Asean foreign ministers that, as far as China was concerned, Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was not central to the issue.
In 2012, the 45th Asean Ministerial Meeting, under Cambodia’s chairmanship, failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in Asean’s history because Cambodia, at China’s behest, blocked consensus on the South China Sea. Afterwards, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said it had been a “strategic choice”.
This year, before an international tribunal ruled against China on July 12, Beijing had repeatedly and in hectoring terms warned Asean against taking a common position on the ruling.
Twice, Hun Sen said Cambodia would not agree to a common Asean position.
The Asean charter makes clear that decisions will be by consensus. As an organisation of diverse sovereign states, Asean must reconcile national interests. Consensus ensures civility and order between members. This is Asean’s fundamental purpose and its most underappreciated success: despite tensions in the South China Sea, Southeast Asia is today at peace with itself, at peace with the world and prospering. This would not have seemed likely in 1967 when Asean was formed.
In Southeast Asia sovereignties are still tender; historical enmities often still raw. If consensus is repeatedly abused, the consequences will be unpredictable. This is in no one’s interest. Do Asean and China realise this? I think so, at least minimally and, in China’s case, grudgingly.
The 2012 fiasco in Phnom Penh shocked Asean. Subsequent chairs – Brunei, Myanmar, Malaysia and now Laos – were determined to preserve minimal consensus around general principles, the most crucial being respect for international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Malaysia added an expression of concern over China’s reclamation works. The July 2016 Vientiane joint statement – agreed after an eleventh-hour appeal by Laos to Hun Sen – preserved all this and included language on respect for legal and diplomatic processes, an indirect reference to the tribunal’s decision taken from the February 2016 US-Asean Summit.
In Vientiane, Wang was more conciliatory than in Kunming, where China overplayed its hand: all 10 Asean members resisted Beijing’s attempt to ram its own version of a South China Sea ‘consensus’ down Asean’s throat. China knows that of late its diplomacy on the South China Sea has been less than a dazzling success and has at least made tactical adjustments.
What has all this got to do with Hong Kong?
The Commander of the PLA Navy, Admiral Wu Shengli (吳勝利), recently told an American admiral that the South China Sea was a “core interest” for China on which the Communist Party’s governance depended.
If rocks, atolls and reefs in the South China Sea are a “core interest”, Hong Kong must be far more important to the party. For a hundred years, the legitimacy of every Chinese government has depended on its ability to protect China’s sovereignty. The party cannot compromise over Hong Kong.
China speaks threateningly, but knows that stopping the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet from operating in the South China Sea would be a casus belli. War with the United States can have only one outcome. Defeat would jeopardise party rule. Neither the US nor China will stop asserting their interests in the South China Sea. But they also deter each other from going too far. China does not want Asean to swing entirely to America, and so reluctantly accepts its minimal consensus.
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Will America defend Hong Kong, which it does not dispute is Chinese territory? Will China really allow Hong Kong to choose its leaders? Can Beijing even tactically compromise on democracy for Hong Kong without giving other citizens including those in Tibet ( 西藏 ) and Xinjiang ( 新疆 ) evil thoughts about Chinese Communist Party rule? China’s emphasis must always be on one country – not two systems.
Lord Patten left a poisoned chalice for Beijing. As governor, Patten’s primary considerations were Britain’s amour propre and his personal legacy, not the interests of the Hong Kong people. Hong Kong was a British colony. How could it ever be a Western-style democracy in China? Since 1997, Hong Kong governments have not adequately explained these harsh realities to the Hong Kong people.
Consequently too many Hong Kong people seem to take sweet Western words too seriously.
The city’s historical role was to act as an interface between China and the world. The world now deals directly with China and Hong Kong is no longer irreplaceably unique.
Sooner or later Shanghai will replace it as China’s main financial centre. Hong Kong will then become just another Chinese city. Why hasten that day by continually provoking Beijing?
Occupy Central and its aftermath could only have enhanced Beijing’s suspicions and its determination to cut Hong Kong down to size. On Hong Kong, China is not just blustering. Hongkongers have less room for manoeuvre than Asean.
Better to understand the lessons of the South China Sea and preserve what autonomy you can for as long as you can.
Bilahari Kausikan is the former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs