• ASEAN and the South China Sea issue


    JUANIT0 P. JARASATHEN and now I have found it troubling that the Arroyo administration had adopted as one of the “eight realities” of its foreign policy the following statement: “Philippine foreign policy has to be crafted within the context of ASEAN.” It gave the wrong impression that the Philippines was not pursuing an independent foreign policy. It also created the assumption that ASEAN had acquired supranational power vis-a-vis its member states. In truth and in fact, in ASEAN, national interests take precedence over regional interests.

    Take the case of Cambodia’s repeated blocking of any strong and direct criticism of China’s position and actions in the South China Sea (SCS). ASEAN makes decisions by consensus; objection by any one of its 10 member states derails any projected move.

    Despite the momentous significance of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which favored almost all of the 15-point submissions filed by the Philippines, ASEAN has failed to issue a joint statement strongly advocated by the Philippines and Vietnam calling on China to abide by the PCA ruling owing to the lack of consensus, as Laos, the chair of the ASEAN Standing Committee has explained.

    At the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Vientiane in July of this year, ASEAN could only adopt a watered-down reference to the South China Sea. The previous month, at the special meeting of ASEAN and China’s foreign ministers in Kunming, China, to celebrate the ASEAN-China dialogue partnership, the ASEAN foreign ministers, miffed by the attempt to pressure the group to adopt Beijing’s position on the South China Sea, tried to adopt a separate and strong statement but Cambodia, joined by Laos, prevailed upon the group to withdraw the plan.

    Cambodia has consistently been doing China’s bidding on the South China Sea issue in ASEAN owing to its strong and growing dependence on Beijing for foreign assistance, loans, trade and investment. In 2012, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting did not produce a joint statement at all because the then chair, Cambodia, opposed any mention of the South China Sea.

    Because of what happened in Cambodia and the fact that ASEAN finds it difficult to speak with one voice on contentious issues, the former Aquino administration was right to decide unilaterally to submit the South China Sea issue for arbitration by the PCA in January 2013, after 17 years of fruitless diplomatic efforts.

    (It is interesting to note that after the PCA ruling was issued, then Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan of Singapore, a non-claimant state in the South China Sea dispute, was quoted as saying that the Philippine decision to raise the issue before the PCA was a national decision made without consultation with the rest of ASEAN members.)

    It doesn’t seem to matter that Cambodia had in the past benefited a great deal from ASEAN’s political and diplomatic efforts. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia–then known as Kampuchea–in 1979, ASEAN member countries sponsored resolutions in the United Nations year after year for a decade calling for Vietnamese withdrawal and to give the warring Cambodian factions the right to self-determination for their country. The ASEAN initiative contributed to the forging of the 1991 Paris Peace Accord, including the political settlement of the Cambodian situation.

    ASEAN envisioned to include all states of Southeast Asia as members of the organization. All of the states remaining outside of ASEAN–Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia–were scheduled to be admitted simultaneously at the meeting in Kuala Lumpur in the latter part of July 1997. But a coup situation in early July foiled Cambodia’s entry into the ASEAN fold. To restore political stability to Cambodia, ASEAN formed a troika of the foreign ministers of the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, headed by our late Domingo L. Siazon Jr., then chair of ASEAN.

    The troika conducted a sort of shuttle diplomacy holding talks with principal players of the Cambodian situation. ASEAN efforts led to the holding of a credible election in Cambodia in July 1998 and the country was finally admitted as the tenth ASEAN member in 1998. Upon its requ est, I presented in March 1999 before a working group meeting in Bangkok of the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific (CSAP) a paper entitled, “The ASEAN Troika on Cambodia: A Philippine Perspective”. The CSAP is a non-government, second-track process for dialogue and security with 21 members, including the Philippines, the United States and China. My paper earned the approval of the Cambodian delegation and was later included in a book on preventive diplomacy published by the Australian National University and in the ASEAN Reader by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies of Singapore.

    ASEAN-China relations have undulated because of the South China Sea issue. From the beginning, the relationship was clearly bound to be affected by this issue. The 25th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Manila on July 22, 1992 adopted the ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea because the area “involved sensitive questions of sovereignty and jurisdiction of parties directly concerned… and command all parties to apply the principles contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia as the basis for establishing a code of international conduct over the South China Sea.” Then Foreign Affairs Secretary Raul Manglapus chaired the meeting and the Declaration was signed by foreign ministers of the original five members, plus newcomer Brunei.

    Earlier, at the 24th AMM in Kuala Lumpur, China’s Foreign Minister, a guest of the AMM, expressed his country’s keen desire to cooperate with ASEAN for mutual benefit. China was accorded full “dialogue partner” status at the 29th AMM in Jakarta. The ASEAN-China partnership was later enhanced by China’s involvement in other ASEAN-generated forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Plus 3 (China, Japan, and South Korea), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and East Asia Summit (EAS).

    Aside from China, ASEAN has full dialogue partnerships with the US, Russia, Japan, the Republic of Korea,
    Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and the European Union. Of all the dialogue partners, it is only China that has a festering problem or issue with ASEAN, namely the South China Sea.

    Beijing has to confront the issue also in the various multilateral forums generated by ASEAN. As head of the Philippine delegation to the ARF Intercessional Group on Confidence Building Measures Meeting in Bangkok in 1999, I created a stir among ARF participants by raising the issue of China’s incursion into Mischief Reef, and distributing documents and photographs to support my statement. My article on this meeting and related matters was published in three parts by the Manila Times in May 2015.

    But discussions at these forums would fail to arrive at any conclusion, especially if adverse to China, because smaller countries with vital economic links to China would “come to the rescue”. The ASEM Meeting in July of this year thus made no direct mention of the South China Sea in its joint statement.

    At the ARF Foreign Ministers Meeting in July of this year, perhaps sensing that some members would not be going along with a joint statement containing their views, the foreign ministers of the US, Japan, and Australia issued their own statements urging China not to construct military outposts and reclaim land in the disputed waters. The US statement went to the extent of stating that China’s rejection of the PCA ruling was “illegitimate” as the US and the international community saw it as legally binding and a matter of law. However, at the sidelines of the ARF, the US Secretary of State accepted the Chinese Foreign Minister’s request for support for the resumption of bilateral talks between China and the Philippines.

    There has so far been only one ASEAN event where discussions on the South China Sea produced a concrete result. This was on November 4, 2002 in Phnom Penh when the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN and the Special Envoy of China (now its Foreign Minister) signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The DOC parties “reaffirm their commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, the 1982 UNCLOS, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (obviously China’s insertion), and other recognized principles of international law which shall serve as the basic norms governing state to state relations.”

    Unfortunately, China has honored the DOC in the breach rather than the observance. It violated the agreement to refrain from inhabiting islands, reefs, shoals, and other features of the South China Sea. Its reclamation and construction activities have virtually transformed the SCS into a Chinese fortress. And China has yet to conclude with ASEAN a legally binding and enforceable Code of Conduct in the SCS.

    As a member of the Philippine delegation to two high-level bilateral meetings with China regarding the South China Sea held in Beijing in May 1997 and Manila in March 1999, I saw how difficult it was to deal with China on a one-on-one basis. The Chinese wanted us to swallow hook, line, and sinker their “historic rights and indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea” while rejecting international law principles and arguments based on UNCLOS. Unless China changes its mind about the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, I am afraid entering into bilateral negotiations with China will belike going into a cul-de-sac. Indications are strong that the South China Sea will remain as one of China’s three core national interests, along with Taiwan and Tibet.

    It seems the only hope for the Philippines, and the world for that matter, is for China to realize that the “China Dream” to bury its past humiliation in the hands of Western powers and to gain respect as a leading civilized state does not lie in disregard or disrespect of the rule of law but in abiding by the time-honored comitas gentium, or comity of nations. Merriam-Webster says that since 1862, comity of nations has referred to countries bound by a courteous relationship based on mutual recognition of executive, legislative, and judicial acts. In essence, comity entails friendship and respect among countries as well as mutual civility and courtesy between them. That could be hard to achieve in today’s world beset by turmoil of various kinds but it is an ideal situation worth aspiring for.

    The author was formerly Assistant Secretary for ASEAN Affairs (1988-89) and Asian and Pacific Affairs (l997-1999) at the Department of Foreign Affairs.


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    1. It’s a joke to urge China to abide by rule of law when it comes to their goals in projecting military and economic prowess in the region and around the world. Obama’s weakness emboldened China to build the fortress that has become a threat to maritime and trade. China will abide by its own rule and interests and gets away with it. Diplomacy with China is one way street. Forget about the UN for it is a Inutile, useless high school debating society that doesn’t prevent or stop wars, famine and prosperity. Philippines have to live with reality of Chinese presence and power in the region. You cannot stop China now. It’s too late.