Thanks to Chinese expansionism, the South China Sea has become Asean's Achilles heel

The rift between pro-China members and the rest has become difficult to resolve, thereby emboldening Beijing, writes Brahma Chellaney

Representatives attending the 25th ASEAN Regional Forum Retreat pose for a group photograph in Singapore, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Joseph Nair)
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Despite its internal rifts, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) likes to be in the driver’s seat, even on initiatives that extend beyond its remit. But having placed itself behind the wheel, Asean usually needs instructions on how to drive and where to go.

One such example is the Asean regional forum, which provides a setting for annual ministerial discussions on peace and security issues across the Asia-Pacific region. Established in 1994, it draws together 27 member states, including key players like the US, China, India, Japan, Russia, Australia and the two Koreas.

The regional forum’s most recent discussions were held along with three other meetings this month – the 18-nation East Asia Summit (whose membership extends from the US and New Zealand to India and Russia), the Asean Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) and Asean’s own annual ministerial discussions. These meetings, all at foreign minister level and held in quick succession in Singapore, advertised Asean’s esteemed centrality.

However, the Asean-centred extra-regional initiatives, characterised by minimal institutionalisation and consensual decision-making, serve primarily as "talking shops" for confidence building and improved co-operation. Like in Asean itself, the politics of lowest common denominator tends to prevail.

These forums have yet to move to a strategy of preventive diplomacy or conflict resolution. They have also not been able to tangibly contribute to building a rules-based order, including by reining in aggressive unilateralism by their own members, like China, Russia and the US.

Despite their limitations, the forums are seen by members as offering good value for promoting their foreign policy objectives.

The latest spate of multilateral discussions focused on issues ranging from North Korea's denuclearisation, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging all states to "strictly enforce all sanctions" on Pyongyang, to the impending Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, which would create the world's largest trading bloc.

The discussions underscored the competing geopolitical interests at play. The highlight of the Singapore meetings, however, was the announcement by China and Asean that they have agreed on a draft document that would serve as a basis for further negotiations for a code of conduct, or COC, in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways.

A COC was mandated by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which exhorted all parties "to exercise self-restraint" with regard to "activities that would complicate or escalate disputes". But that appeal was essentially ignored by China, which has fundamentally changed the status quo in the South China Sea in its favour, without incurring any international costs.

Sixteen years after that declaration, just an intention to negotiate a COC has been announced. By the time the actual COC emerges, China will have fully consolidated its control in the South China Sea, with the code only serving to reinforce the new reality. This explains why Beijing has delayed a COC while it presses ahead in the South China Sea with frenzied construction and militarisation.

Today, the South China Sea has emerged as Asean's Achilles heel, with its failure to take a unified stance aiding Beijing’s divide-and-rule strategy.

The rift in Asean between pro-China members and the rest has now become difficult to set right. By conveying disunity and weakness, Asean has emboldened China’s territorial and maritime revisionism, which, in turn, has made the South China Sea the world’s most critical hotspot.

Against this backdrop, the much-hyped announcement of a single draft document for future negotiations, with Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan hailing it as “yet another milestone in the COC process”, was just the latest example of how Asean has been playing right into China’s hands.

In fact, that announcement came soon after the second anniversary of the landmark ruling of an international arbitral tribunal, which knocked the bottom out of China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. Since that ruling, which is now part of international law, China has only accelerated its expansionism, as if to make the verdict meaningless.

This is a reminder that international law by itself is no answer to China’s expansionism. If southeast Asia, a region of nearly 640 million people, is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact across the Indo-Pacific.

Today, Asean's main challenge is represented by the widening gap between economics and politics in southeast Asia. The region is integrating economically, with its economic vibrancy on open display. But its political divisions have only hardened.

This has raised questions about Asean's effectiveness to safeguard peace and security in its own region. Such concerns have been heightened by the lack of an effective response to Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, despite its transnational impacts.

Asean has left itself little room for reflection and reform by elaborately staging its summits and foreign-minister meetings in conjunction with extra-regional initiatives that bring leaders of outside powers. This not only allows outsiders to press their own objectives but also keeps the focus on larger international issues, with Asean notionally in the driver’s seat.

As the bloc grows its extra-regional profile, its centrality in broader initiatives is exacting an increasing price.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground