The ASEAN Summit goes bust

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

The ASEAN Chairman’s Statement released last Friday disappointed all of us watching for what the Philippines had to offer its Southeast Asian neighbors in the name of regional stability. The country, as this year’s ASEAN chair and host, had the opportunity to reflect its views and the sentiments of the bloc’s leaders over the most important issues before the region. These views, as encapsulated in the statement, show that the President is not interested in using the ASEAN pulpit to much effect.

The statement’s contents may not have been that surprising, given the President’s policy toward China. Yet, we had harbored some hope that he would use the opportunity presented by the ASEAN Summit to bring to life the concerns shared by many Filipinos and many countries over the South China Sea. We only chair the ASEAN meetings once a decade, after all.

Moreover, now that ASEAN is celebrating its 50th year, it would have made sense for the Chair and the Member States to show just how far the regional body has come.

Ultimately, however, the President’s South China Sea strategy has been so focused on China side of the equation that the Southeast Asian side appears to have been neglected. As far as we can tell, the administration appears to believe that if they can make China happy, then the whole of the South China Sea problem goes away. This is an unsustainable view that risks leaving everyone in Southeast Asia – Filipinos included – dissatisfied with the outcome.

The weakness of the statement can be judged in two ways. First, whether it contains what we’d like it to contain, such as an explicit reference to the ruling. Second, whether it goes further than previous chairman’s statements, or whether it backtracks.

The first benchmark, containing an explicit reference to the ruling, has very obviously not been met. Again, given the President’s China policy, this is disappointing but not surprising. What takes us aback is how the administration has gone softer than previous chairman’s statement (the second benchmark). This year’s release is softer than the one issued last year by Laos.

How have we gone softer? We have removed language that had previously been acceptable to all of the ASEAN states. Much of the change comes from what has been removed, and a good deal has been removed at that. The length of difference between the 29th Summit (2016) and the 30th Summit (2017) on the South China Sea section is remarkable. Whereas the 2016 version reaches nearly a page, the 2017 summit is less than half that.

In 2016, the Chairman’s statement said: “We remain concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some Leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.”

In our Chairman’s statement this year, this is what took its place: “We took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area.” You would think, reading this statement, that developments no longer erode trust and confidence. Some of the activities, like land reclamations, have been completed. Nevertheless, other escalations, such as the proven militarization of the contested features, have continued unabated.

Militarization had been explicitly mentioned in 2016. The statement “emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities[.]” There is no mention of non-militarization in the 2017 text. Instead, we have a mention of the importance of states not resorting to the threat or the use of force, which is a separate matter from the build up that is occurring on the features.

Those watching out for a mention of the ruling in particular must be especially disappointed by the lack of reference to international law. Last year’s statement “reaffirmed the need to… pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” This year, the South China Sea section has removed all mention ensuring resolution occurs in accordance with international law, even as a general statement.

One could try to argue that, despite these omissions, the general principle of the ASEAN statement has been maintained. However, the strength of a statement is in its specificities, not in its vagaries. The omissions in the South China Sea section are especially obvious when taken in contrast with the section on the North Korean nuclear problem, which comes soon afterward. On North Korea, the statement says “We expressed our grave concern over recent developments in the Korean Peninsula, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) two nuclear tests in 2016 and subsequent ballistic missile launches.”

That we do not express such grave and specific concerns over the South China Sea, where both Philippine and Southeast Asian interests are clearly and immediately affected, shows the psychological power that China has over this administration.

Speaking to the Associated Press, three Philippine officials said that the “watered-down” text came at the request of Chinese diplomats. Why should China’s interests come first? The administration should answer.

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