New Dynamics in ASEAN’s Stance on South China Sea
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

New Dynamics in ASEAN’s Stance on South China Sea

Nov. 11, 2016  |     |  0 comments

The successful visits of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Beijing between October 18-21, 2016 and to Tokyo between October 25-27 had enhanced his stature at home and abroad. The closely watched joint statements of the Philippines with China and Japan respectively clarified the new Philippine foreign policy direction that emphasizes its national economic interests. The speeches of Duterte in Beijing and Tokyo also clarified his earlier anti-American military presence statement.

Coherent views on Philippine foreign policy are emerging and they are:

1. The country will seek closer economic cooperation with both China and Japan. Economic cooperation will be the new focus of Philippine diplomacy from now on, and the country will refrain from taking sides in geo-political rivalries.

2. The country will take its internal problems as its policy priorities and it expects other countries to respect its sovereign decisions on domestic policy priority choices. Its disagreement with the US centres on the unwelcome criticism and interference of the US on its anti-crime and anti-drug campaigns.

3. The country will resolve the South China Sea issue with China through peaceful bilateral dialogue. It supports freedom of navigation and overflight over the South China Sea as well as the rules-based approach to the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. It opposes the use of threats or force in the South China Sea.

4. The country will not get into a military alliance with China nor any other country. However, it will honour its existing obligations under the US-Philippines mutual defence treaty.

The foreign policy position of Duterte was well-received at home. The global attention that Duterte received in his Beijing and Tokyo visits was unprecedented in Philippine history and the people were proud of the red-carpet treatment that he received in both countries. The recent return of Filipino fisherman to the disputed Scarborough Shoal after four years of absence was taken as a tangible fruit of his Beijing visit. Among the major claimants to the South China Sea, the Philippines is acknowledged to be the weakest militarily. It must rely on US military power to pursue its territorial claims. However, the US has steadfastly refused to commit itself to the Philippine side if an unexpected conflict breaks out, even though the Philippines is a strong US ally in Asia. Thus, the Filipinos are well-aware of their vulnerability. The current commitment to the peaceful resolution of the conflict serves the country’s interests better than the earlier confrontational approach through litigation at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

The success of Duterte’s visits to Beijing and Tokyo has initiated new dynamics in ASEAN’s position on the South China Sea issue. The Philippines will assume the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN next year and its success in lowering tensions on the South China Sea issue will likely become the ASEAN stand.

The Philippines’ shift from confrontation to bilateral talks has changed the discourse of the issue. A statement released by the Malaysian government prior to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit to China on October 31 declares that the country is looking forward to a new peak in bilateral ties. Malaysia is one of the four ASEAN claimants to the South China Sea and its decision to forego the South China Sea issue mimics the Philippine stand.

The Philippines’ foreign policy shift has changed the discourse over the South China Sea and will hopefully bring down regional tensions over the disruptive issues.

The new Philippine stand on bilateral peaceful negotiations with China on the South China Sea issue removes the risk of a potential split among ASEAN members. The group was split along the lines of whether the association should be involved in the disputes. In a recent meeting in Laos, Cambodia was a vocal opponent to the inclusion of the PCA ruling in their joint statement, while the Philippines had lobbied for the inclusion. Now with three out of four ASEAN claimant countries — Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei — taking up the bilateral approach, the likelihood of the issue remaining inside the ASEAN agenda is diminished. The removal of this divisive issue from the ASEAN agenda will allow the association to focus back on the issue of closer regional cooperation.

We should note that the bilateral approach is the international norm in the resolution of territorial disputes, not multilateralism. There is no major country around the world nowadays that will accept the multilateral approach in its territorial disputes with its neighbors. On the application of relevant international norms or laws in a dispute, it is also a well-established principle that only concerned parties can decide on the issue, and other countries are not supposed to posit any position unless invited as “friends of the court/negotiation”.

While the Chinese ability to speedily reclaim shoals to islands and install airstrips had caught international headlines, China was not the first mover in the exercise; on the contrary, their behavior was a response to moves initiated by countries such as Vietnam. China’s outsized economic and military power simply dwarfs the other claimants in the standoff. While Vietnam had reclaimed tens of hectares and installed short air strips over many years, China can reclaim hundreds of hectares and install long bomber-use air strips in months. The step-up of the Chinese navy’s military posture in recent years can also be interpreted as a pushback against the US “pivot to Asia” that promised to commit 60 percent of the US navy to the region.

Now with the lowering of tensions in the South China Sea, the urgency to deploy military assets to the area by the major powers and the claimant countries has been lowered. Scarce resources can be redeployed by the claimant countries towards their economic development. We should note that the regional countries around the South China Sea had increased their military spending notably in recent years.

The Philippines’ interpretation of the South China Sea issue as a power transition rivalry between China and the US, and its declared intention to stay above the fray, has effectively helped ASEAN to escape the trap of taking sides among its dialogue powers. This preserves ASEAN’s centrality and unity.

The Philippine position of prioritizing domestic problems over disruptive international issues will hopefully bring some prosperity to the country. Once that happens, the demonstration effect will likely put ASEAN’s focus back on regional economic cooperation. It is sad to note that ASEAN’s presence is mostly felt only in its dialogues with regional powers. The association has not brought much economic benefits to the citizens of its member states.

The Philippines’ foreign policy shift has changed the discourse over the South China Sea and will hopefully bring down regional tensions over the disruptive issues.

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