It surprises no one that the tension in the South China or West Philippine Sea was the major issue discussed during the weekend’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit.
The 10-country Asean Summit convened just days after both Vietnam and the Philippines locked horns with China over contested waters, which stoked international alarm.
The summit, hosted for the first time by Myanmar in its capital Naypyidaw, was dominated by discussions on the maritime and sovereignty disputes. South China or West Philippine Sea is crisscrossed by key shipping lanes and is said to have vast energy reserves.
Asean foreign ministers expressed “serious concerns over the ongoing developments” in a joint statement released on Saturday as the bloc sought to present a unified front in dealing with the region’s massive neighbor.
Country by country on an individual basis or as a collective, Asean is no match against China’s economic and military might. Even if Asean collectively has a population of 600 million, it cannot raise an army of soldiers to equal China’s 3 million or so personnel of the People’s Liberation Army. And Asean will not waste money matching the atomic power, and the naval and air force might of the Communist-Party ruled People’s Republic.
What Asean should do is to have a united voice against China’s territorial aggressions, but spoken in fine diplomatic language.
At present, only the Philippines and Vietnam are actively physically involved in their sea disputes with China, and both have been very vocal against the intrusions of China into their territories.
The worst thing that could happen is the Philippines and Vietnam end up being the states in Asean that would remain assertive of their rights against China.
The best thing that could happen at the Asean Summit is, the bloc collectively comes up with a strongly worded position paper telling China to think twice about using force in the South China Sea, and for the Asian giant to respect current international laws on the seas, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
However, Asean should not close its doors to joint and equitable exploration of natural resources in the seas of Southeast Asia with China, for this would show that the bloc is not discriminating against China because of its perceived bullying.
As of this writing we don’t know if like the Summit in Cambodia in 2012, there will be no Final Summit declaration. Asean lost credibility and prestige in that Summit when Cambodia was chairman because it slavishly did what China told it to do. It insulted the Philippines by putting off the microphone while Foreign Secretary del Rosario was speaking. Cambodia banged the gavel against any proposal to discuss the incursions of China and even on the agreement to pass a Code of Conduct.
Diplomatic sources, according to Agence France-Presse, said the foreign ministers’ statement on Saturday omitted reference to specific incidents in order to achieve consensus from all Asean member states.
If that it is the case then there will be no serious Summit declaration. And Asean is again proved to be un-united.
That is tragic.
It means Asean will not survive long as a body, but just a tiny bit able to ward off China’s bullying.