ASEAN is an organization that symbolizes regionalism, collective action for the management of great power relations, and harmonious handling of civilizational and economic differences. It reached its pinnacle in the late 1990s and 2000s. Now it is struggling to play the expected, outsize role in all of these dimensions. In conditions of increased Chinese assertiveness and pushback from the United States and Japan, ASEAN’s leadership in regionalism has been diminished, and its capacity to guide the great powers has been put in grave doubt. At stake are ASEAN’s centrality and its aura as an exceptional example of liberal institutionalism apart from US ideals.
Optimists about regionalism—rather than balancing among great powers—as the key to security took heart from three organizations after the turn of this century. The Six-Party Talks offered hope for Northeast Asian regional security cooperation, ostensibly centering on the Korean Peninsula but actually focused on how Sino-US ties were proceeding. When their cooperation continued and the talks ended due to North Korea’s belligerence, South Korea was emboldened to take a more active role. The SCO served to keep China and Russia from conflict with each other over Central Asia, while giving room to Central Asian states to maneuver between the two. With North Korea problematic as the object of the Six-Party Talks and Russia reluctant to allow China a big foothold in Central Asia through the SCO, ASEAN drew attention as the most promising venue left for regionalism. It expanded its reach with ASEAN+3, ASEAN+6, and finally the East Asian Summit including the United States and Russia. Its annual meetings of secretaries of state and defense ministers attracted growing interest. Confidence in ASEAN surged even after the Six-Party Talks collapsed and the SCO appeared to have reached a dead-end. ASEAN clearly stood on center stage.
As the Obama administration increasingly embraced ASEAN, China’s skepticism was growing more intense. In 2009, the shift in China’s reasoning was unmistakable. If previously Chinese wrote approvingly of ASEAN leadership, the tone turned to more active Chinese policies not dependent on ASEAN. Suspicions were raised that ASEAN is incapable of leading or subject to manipulation by other great powers, especially the hegemonic insistence of the United States. With the appearance of ASEAN+3 in the late 1990s, there was much talk of a win-win situation for China and Japan, each deferring to ASEAN to steer regionalism. With newly intensified competition in Sino-US relations from 2010, there was again hope that ASEAN would provide the most positive environment for managing differences among the great powers. Only a deepening of Sino-Japanese and Sino-US tensions has led many to question optimistic assumptions. Against this backdrop, the disputes over the South China Sea have raised the stakes, split ASEAN, and even cast doubt on its centrality and prospects.
The South China Sea Disputes
Opinions diverge on what is fueling these disputes. At the two extremes are views in China and the United States and its allies, especially Japan. Chinese insist that their country is only expressing its sovereign rights, while the United States is arousing opposition in the region for reasons of containment. If Washington really sought to coexist with another “major power,” it would accept what China is doing, readers are told. The widely expressed viewpoint on the US side is not so one-sided. It holds that China is using force or the threat of force and economic pressure instead of the dispute management mechanisms available to resolve differences over sovereignty on which the United States takes a neutral position. Moreover, China’s lack of transparency raises questions about whether it will challenge freedom of navigation and overflight in what may be the world’s busiest corridor. These US concerns are packaged together as evidence of Chinese aspirations for hegemonism—traditional sinocentrism—with the intent to exclude other great powers, as Southeast Asian states are obliged, one by one, to cut a deal, leaving them dependent on one state.
Washington and Beijing differ in their policy prescriptions for ASEAN. Both are now buttressing bilateral relationships to support their overall strategy, but Washington favors a strong, collective ASEAN position for: a Code of Conduct, pushback against China’s island construction projects, confidence-building measures, and readiness to put problems related to the South China Sea disputes on the agenda when meetings occur. China downgrades the role of ASEAN on matters of security. Just as it chose in the North Korean nuclear crisis to forgo five versus one no matter what the provocation was from the North, it has shown strong distrust of multilateralism, involving the United States or subject to US influence. Meanwhile, Tokyo presents itself as the champion of ASEAN solidarity, standing squarely with Washington against Beijing’s position.
Ian Storey examines why amidst China’s assertive behavior, especially over the past two years, ASEAN has failed to engage China on this and get it to change course. The result has been intensified problems between China and Southeast Asian claimants (and also the South China Sea becoming the locus of geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Beijing), nervousness about where the region is heading leading to an arms race and a security dilemma, and a loss of ASEAN centrality in the regional security architecture. He blames a combination of ASEAN’s internal dynamics and China’s conviction that its claims are superior to those of its neighbors by virtue of its birthright. Storey finds that the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea was fundamentally flawed. It was non-binding without a dispute resolution mechanism. It is flagrantly violated. While China, after delays, grudgingly agreed to preliminary talks on a Code of Conduct, progress has been imperceptible, he argues, as China stands alone in dragging its feet. Storey asks why would China sign a credible, legally-binding, and effective code of conduct that ties its hands in the South China Sea when it increasingly possesses the naval and coast guard assets to pursue de facto control within the nine-dash line, and when the United States seems flummoxed about how to respond, while all ASEAN does is issue statements of concern. In May 2014 and April 2015, statements were issued that displayed ASEAN unity, but neither criticized China by name nor did they call for the removal of HYSY-981 or a halt to China’s artificial island-building. To Storey, members who find themselves in direct confrontation with China, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, would like to see ASEAN get tough with Beijing, while states that do not have a direct stake in the dispute and do not want to rock the boat with their largest trading partner, elicit much less concern. The result is that ASEAN is not able to build on its lowest common denominator consensus. Yet, Storey suggests that Indonesia’s relations with China are bound to suffer and throw into sharper relief the disconnect between Jakarta’s claim that it is a neutral party because it rejects the nine-dash line, and Beijing’s determination to uphold its so-called “historic rights” within that line, including in the waters off the Natuna Islands. This will occur as the credibility of ASEAN is tested again. By pushing China on the Code of Conduct, opposing a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea, and supporting the decisions of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, ASEAN would vex China, but if it does not, its credibility will be in tatters.
Satu Limaye argues, based on a review of arguments about ASEAN, that we should avoid misconstruing ASEAN’s objectives. He also questions why the South China Sea disputes should be deemed central to ASEAN, suggesting that this issue has very low salience in discussions about the future of the organization. Limaye insists that other issues take precedence in meeting the challenges in forging a community. He concludes that if one has a middle-of-the-road ambition for ASEAN, rather than big ambitions for it to become a community or minimal goals for a shared voice and cooperation, then the way ASEAN is responding to the South China Sea disputes is about right. Yet, he notes that related tensions are causing complications for external relations and cohesion. This article reviews how various specialists assess ASEAN’s challenges, finding a paucity of references to the impact of the South China Sea disputes and little indication that they are an especially critical challenge. This leads Limaye to assert that ASEAN is handling them consistent with its regionalist objectives and also as its normative and pragmatic interests dictate. Defending the core interests of Southeast Asian states in these disputes is left to the United States in a fashion that is quite separate from the region-building enterprise, he observes, adding that none of the four Southeast Asia claimants with overlapping claims to features and related EEZs have recognized each other’s claims; nor is there any agreement about claims or an approach to de-conflicting the claims between ASEAN claimants and non-claimants. Given determination to continue working closely with China, he concludes it is highly unrealistic that ASEAN will take a unified military cooperation position on the SCS, and, if it did, its capacity to affect permanent outcomes would be minimal. Thus, it is likely that ASEAN and its member countries will remain security consumers rather than providers.
Kuroyanagi Yoneji shed light on the South China Sea disputes with special emphasis on three factors: a rising China, the US-China rivalry, and the concept of “ASEAN centrality.” He points to the late May 2015 Shangri-La Dialogue, where the South China Sea disputes drew close attention, including a widely observed exchange between US and Chinese officials. Although Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and PLAN Deputy Chief of Staff Admiral Sun Jianguo spoke candidly about the South China Sea situation, in particular about China’s “salami-slicing” tactics and land reclamation, their comments were less provocative than during the Thirteenth Dialogue the previous year. He finds that the overall impact of ASEAN’s inputs was rather favorable to China in that they were not provocative when they touched upon the South China Sea issues. The South China Sea disputes are a “Black Hole,” absorbing almost all conciliatory ideas in the Asia-Pacific region, voiding proposals and scenarios for peace and stability. China’s policies toward ASEAN countries seem to have been led by “triple avoidance principles”: 1) not to be disregarded by its weak neighbors; 2) not to be feared by them; and 3) not to be encircled by less amicable countries. Now that Beijing has acknowledged the possible declaration of an ADIZ over the South China Sea, the crises of the East and South China seas are undeniably interlocked. Thus, Tokyo is, like it or not, forced to be involved in the simmering situation over the South China Sea, where it has no territorial claim. But, as the weakest side of the US-China-Japan triangle—an appendage to the US-China duplex—, it has to play a delicate role. He cautiously advocates a low-key role for Japan.
Scott Bentley focuses on the “special relationship” between Malaysia and China and its impact on their South China Sea dispute. Despite talk of Malaysia toughening its stance, its recent response to a perceived intrusion by a Chinese ship differs little from prior responses centering on diplomatic protests and active surveillance at sea. Bentley attributes it to political inertia that resists making difficult strategic decisions. Citing China’s growing presence in areas including the South Luconia Shoals, as well as the increased role of maritime paramilitary assets shifting from the Spratlys to the southwest, he reports on the parliamentary testimony of some senior Malaysian officials. Despite a rise in patrols, he does not see any substantial shift in policy even as occasional intrusions have turned into a permanent presence. Bentley refers to the new operational reality of Chinese efforts to enforce within the EEZ and continental shelf of Malaysia its jurisdiction and authority. He concludes that the emphasis on quiet diplomacy until recently is a product of the widely shard belief in the existence of a “special relationship” with China, as if Malaysia is treated differently from its neighbors, but it is not. As ASEAN chair in 2015, Malaysia might be expected to press China, but there has been little public indication that such efforts have borne fruit. A more effective utilization of backchannel diplomacy might be to intensify Malaysia’s discussions with other ASEAN claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which would enable them to achieve common ground, argues Bentley. Yet, he finds that ASEAN is unlikely to prove an effective deterrent and suggests that ties outside ASEAN, including to Australia and the United States, may be the choice ahead.
Joseph Liow finds that the disputes over the South China Sea are fueled by heated rhetoric, mutual distrust, perceptions and misperceptions, and nationalism. These forces complicate resolution of the disputes, while exposing the limited utility of the framework that showcases ASEAN-centered liberalism and great power driven realism. He also is attentive to blind spots, which distort analysis of what is transpiring in these disputes. First, few are noticing that in addition to China’s insistence on sovereignty, there are an atomized series of tussles, which not only involve diplomacy but lead to saber rattling and demonstrations of strength. Liow points to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia as the main parties to disputes, which led to legal and diplomatic posturing but no solutions. Second, despite widespread expectations that armed conflict lies ahead, he regards the incentives for restraint outweighing those for aggression, given China’s economic needs. Yet, Liow’s stress on a lack of consensus among Chinese decision-makers leaves open the possibility that once it is achieved, the outcome could be more aggression, not less. Third, the US interest is freedom of navigation and commerce, including military activity within another state’s EEZ; so its response to open, armed conflict in response to moves by China is far from inevitable, Liow concludes. However, he doubts that it would risk a larger conflagration with China for an ally’s contested claims over atolls, and he anticipates that Washington would hesitate to insist on military activity in the EEZ, as others oppose it. Finally, Liow turns to international law, concluding that China’s position is weak, but that political will is more important, and legal matters are likely to fall by the wayside.