Renewing the Multilateral Response: Building an ASEAN Coalition

July 25, 2016

A Ibrahim Almuttaqi, Head of ASEAN Studies Program, The Habibie Center, Jakarta and Contributing Writer for the Stratbase-Albert del Rosario Institute

On July 12th, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague gave its ruling on the case of the Philippines v. China concerning the dispute over maritime jurisdiction in the South China Sea. With expectations high that on the one hand the PCA would rule overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines, and that on the other hand China would totally reject the court’s ruling, much attention has focused on how ASEAN would respond. Given its self-proclaimed ‘ASEAN centrality’ role at the heart of the region’s security architecture, in addition to the fact that four of its member-states are claimants to the South China Sea, a multilateral response from ASEAN was hoped for. At the same time, it was clear that Beijing made a number of preemptive attempts to prevent such a multilateral response from the regional grouping. As such, a discourse on ‘Renewing the Multilateral Response: Building an ASEAN Coalition’ has emerged to address the South China Sea issues viz-a-viz Beijing. However, such a discourse raises a number of key questions, including: (1) Why does the multilateral response to the South China Sea need to be renewed?; (2) What are the possibilities, viability and limitations of building an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ on the South China Sea?; and (3) What are its implications for regional security?

In attempting to address these key questions, this article makes the following three arguments. Firstly, that ASEAN has failed to adequately respond to the South China Sea indicating age-old problems at the very heart of ASEAN decision-making. Such failures have led to ASEAN member-states to seek unilateral/bilateral approaches that call into question ASEAN’s relevance and have wider implications for the law-based regional order that its member-states rely upon. Second, that an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ is a problematic concept that raises a number of contentious questions. The limitations that exist within ASEAN suggest an ASEAN Coalition is neither possible nor viable in the foreseeable future. Thirdly, whether we try to renew a multilateral approach or build an ‘ASEAN Coalition’, it is important that any efforts regarding the South China Sea is takes a comprehensive and inclusive approach that seeks a win-win solution rather than a zero-sum game.

ASEAN’s Multilateral Failures

To demonstrate the failure of ASEAN’s multilateral response, one only needs to look at the lack of a joint statement following the PCA’s ruling. A joint statement was seen as critical for two reasons. Firstly, while the court’s ruling was seen as legally binding, the court itself has no power to enforce its ruling. In this regard, for the PCA’s ruling to be enforced required the good-will and cooperation of all interested nation-states. Secondly, the rules-based regional order that the court’s ruling upheld is critical for the member-states of ASEAN’s existance. Given that the regional grouping (and the wider Asia-Pacific region itself) is made up of a diverse set of small and large nation-states with differing levels of military, economic and soft-power strengths, it is only through the respect of international rules and norms that the region can propser, free from insecurity and instability.

It should be noted that for some time ASEAN member-states had been discussing the possibility of issuing a joint statement, with experts expecting at worst a watered-down and generic output. For example, Prof. Huang Jing from the National University of Singapore argued, “I don’t think the real question is about whether ASEAN will be able to issue a joint statement…Rather, it is more about what it has to say.” Similarly Carlyle Thayer from the Australian Defence Force Academy opined, “ASEAN should certainly be able to issue a joint statement… but ASEAN consensus building is likely to dilute any sharp wording or reference to China.” It was thus somewhat surprising that the 10 member-states of ASEAN were unable to reach consensus to issue the joint statement. Curiously, it was claimed that a draft statement had been agreed upon beforehand. According to one Southeast Asian diplomat, “ASEAN officials had prepared a draft text but there was no agreement to release a joint statement.” It was suggested that “China had once again succeeded in splitting ASEAN.”

Interestingly, the draft statement itself was very much a watered-down one, stating:

“The Arbitral Tribunal’s Award provides clarification on maritime entitlements under UNCLOS, which could be useful for parties to peacefully settle disputes in the South China Sea” [emphasis added].

The fact that the court’s ruling was only described as ‘could be useful’ by the draft statement demonstrates how even a watered-down statement was unable to find consensus among the ten member-states of ASEAN.

It should also be noted that ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint statement following the court’s 0ruling marks the fourth time since 2012 that ASEAN has been divided over the South China Sea issue. While much attention has been paid to ASEAN’s division over the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting that was held in Phnom Penh, July 2012, it has perhaps gone unnoticed the seemingly regularity of ASEAN’s public division over the South China Sea issue.

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Certainly, the failure calls into question the relevance of ASEAN and its self-proclaimed ‘centrality’ in the regional security architecture. The failure also makes a mockery of the ASEAN Bali Concord III of 2011 which called for the regional grouping to ‘increasingly speak in a common voice on international matters of mutual concern at related international forums.’

Instead, and perhaps due to ASEAN’s multilateral response, it is unsurprising that ASEAN member-states have sought unilateral approaches to the South China Sea issue. In the week before the court’s ruling, Cambodia publicly declared that it “will not join in expressing any common position on the verdict”. Meanwhile on the day before the court’s ruling, Singapore’s Foreign Minister, in a statement to Parliament, declared, Singapore: “The Philippine arbitration proceedings against China were a national decision undertaken by the Philippines without consultation with the rest of us.”

It is thus clear then that a multilateral response to the South China Sea issue has been lacking, with member-states seeking unilateral/bilateral approaches, and thus there is a clear need for some form of renewal. It is in this sense that the notion of an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ has been put forward by some.

Problematic ‘ASEAN Coalition’

Traditionally ASEAN member-states have been wary of using the term ‘coalition’. In large parts this is due to the certain implications that the term carries. Recent usage of the term in the realm of international relations cover ‘the Coalition of the Gulf War’ that was assembled by then-US president George H.W. Bush during the 1st Gulf War, ‘the Coalition of the Willing’ that was assembled by then-US president George W. Bush during the war in Iraq and the United Nations coalition that intervened in the 2011 Libyan civil war that saw the removal of Muammar Gaddafi. The military element that is attached to recent examples of ‘coalitions’ in international relations goes against the ASEAN notion that its grouping is not and should not be seen as a military alliance or bloc.

One expert further notes that a coalition has the following the four characteristics: (1) members must frame the issue that brings them together with a common interest; (2) members should trust in each other and believe that their peers have a credible commitment to the coalition’s common issues and/or goal; (3) the coalition must have mechanism to manage their differences; and (4) the members should have a shared incentive to participate and, consequently, benefit from the coalition. It is questionable whether an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ could fulfil any of these characteristics as demonstrated by the grouping’s aforementioned failure to reach a multilateral response thus far. There are also other important questions raised by an ‘ASEAN Coalition’. Firstly, who would the members of the coalition be? Would it only be open to ASEAN member-states or will it be open to extra-regional players such as the U.S.? Given the likelihood that some ASEAN member-states with close relations to Beijing might decline to join an ‘ASEAN Coalition’, would an ‘ASEAN minus X’ coalition stilll be considered an ‘ASEAN coalition.’

Secondly, what would be the goal of an ‘ASEAN Coalition?’ Would the coalition seek to defend its members against China’s assertiveness? Would there be an ASEAN equivalent to NATO’s article 5 whereby an attack on one NATO country is considered an attack on all of NATO? Or would the goal of an ‘ASEAN Coaltion’ be to simply force Beijing to the negotiating table to discuss the South China Sea?

Third, how to prevent an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ from being seen as an anti-China coalition? It is clear that Beijing policy makers have a deep sense that the US is attempting to surround China with hostile parties. Beijing often refer to its ‘Century of Humiliation’ and see current international opposition to its South China Sea claims as a continuation of this.

Fourth, how to ensure that the ‘ASEAN Coalition’ remains united? As noted earlier, previous efforts by ASEAN to issue statements on the South China Sea fell apart at the last minute despite a consensus being reached beforehand. With changing governments resulting in changing national interests and foreign policy priorities, it remains to be seen whether an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ can remain united. One only needs to look at the case of the Philippines and note that while the previous Aquino administration took a hard stance against China – taking Beijing to the PCA – the current Duterte administration has spoken of seeking greater cooperation with China.

For the most part, the limitations of an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ would be no different to the limitations of ASEAN as a whole. These include the fact that any decision-making process would be dependent on consensus-reaching, that ASEAN member-states lack adequate military, economic and/or diplomatic resources, and that they have different interests viz-a-viz the South China Sea and different level of relationships with China. For example the importance of the economic potential of the South China Sea differs vastly among the different parties involved. Similarly, when one talks about how the economic potential will affect the member-states of ASEAN, it should be remembered that not all ASEAN member-states are claimants to the SCS. Indeed different parties will define the South China Sea in different ways. It should be questioned when refering to the South China Sea, if this covers all waters and features within Nine-Dashed Line, all the islands or only certain islands within the South China Sea, and in the case of Indonesia-China, the Natuna Island or the waters surrounding the island. With regards to foreign policy priority, one needs to ask whether interested parties are seeking freedom of navigation, rights to exploration, rights to Fishing/exploit the waters, and/or rights to exploit the land features including conducting land reclamation?

From the above it can be seen that the concept of an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ raises more questions than answers. These questions ranges from the concept’s possibility, viability as well as its limitations. At the same time the concept of an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ will likely provoke a negative response from China thus further undermining regional security.

Implications for regional security

In renewing a multilateral approach or building an ‘ASEAN Coalition’, it is important that any efforts regarding the South China Sea takes a comprehensive and inclusive approach that seeks a win-win solution rather than a zero-sum game. The PCA ruling cannot be implemented without the cooperation of all parties, including that of China. Indeed, isolating China will only serve to provoke Beijing to take a more assertive stance. Having whipped up nationalist sentiments, it will be too much of an embarrassing climbdown for China to suddenly reverse its position on the South China Sea. Given that ‘saving face’ is an important aspect of Asian culture, it is important that ASEAN does not seek to embarass Beijing following its defeat at the PCA.

Final thoughts/Conclusions

At the outset this article sought to address the discourse of ‘Renewing the Multilateral Response: Building an ASEAN Coalition’ that has emerged to address the South China Sea issues viz-a-viz Beijing. Noting that the discourse raises a number of key questions, this article argued that firstly, that ASEAN has failed to adequately respond to the South China Sea indicating age-old problems at the very heart of ASEAN decision-making. Such failures have led to ASEAN member-states to seek unilateral/bilateral approaches that call into question ASEAN’s relevance and have wider implications for the law-based regional order that its member-states rely upon. Second, that an ‘ASEAN Coalition’ is a problematic concept that raises a number of contentious questions. The limitations that exist within ASEAN suggest an ASEAN Coalition is neither possible nor viable in the foreseeable future. Thirdly, whether we try to renew a multilateral approach or build an ‘ASEAN Coalition’, it is important that any efforts regarding the South China Sea is takes a comprehensive and inclusive approach that seeks a win-win solution rather than a zero-sum game.

Overall it is clear that there is much homework for ASEAN to do to raise its relevance in response to the South China Sea. It must go beyond simple rhetoric and towards action. Yet, even agreeing on simple rhetoric has proven difficult for ASEAN as demonstrated by the repeated failure to issue a joint statement on the issue of the South China Sea. As such the onus is on ASEAN to address the serious issues that exist within, not least its lack of unity, its limited capabilities, and limited resources/assets. Only then can ASEAN seek to comprehensively and inclusively resolve the issue of the South China Sea.

 

Remarks delivered during the ADRi forum entitled, “Renewing the Multilateral Response: Building an ASEAN Coalition”, held on July 19, 2016 at the Asian Institute of Management.

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