ANALYSTS have criticized the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for doing China’s bidding, which was championed by Cambodia, China’s agent country in Asean, to disregard the UNCLOS Tribunal’s landmark ruling granting the Philippine petition against China’s takeover of the Philippine territories in the South China/West Philippine Sea and ordering China to stop its aggressive activities.
Some of the analysts also warned that Asean’s “watered-down” statement at the end of the group’s foreign ministers summit in Cambodia “could diminish the grouping’s already waning clout.”
The Japan Times report by Jesse Johnson said, “The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) avoided mentioning in its annual foreign ministers’ communiqué the July 12 ruling by the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration, instead offering the equivalent of a slap on the wrist to China, the group’s biggest trading partner, over its moves in the disputed waters.” The report quoted the Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, David Capie, who said, “The choice was between a weak statement or no statement. This isn’t the first time Asean has avoided mentioning the elephant in the room in order to get consensus. But it underscores Asean’s weakness and raises questions about its relevance.”
Asean communiqué a victory for China – Japan Times report
The report quoted Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, in Sydney, who called the statement “thin gruel,” adding that it was “significantly weaker than previous Asean statements.” He also said, “I’m not even sure it’s better than nothing… The trend will be read as headed in the same direction as an ostrich diving for sand. It is a victory for China, delivered by Cambodia as proxy.”
The report also mentioned that “Cambodian leader Hun Sen announced this month that China would give his country almost $600 million in aid to support election infrastructure, education and health projects” and that “Observers said this was likely to come on the condition that Phnom Penh backed Beijing on issues such as the South China Sea row.”
The Japan Times report quoted Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), in Singapore, saying, “It is very clear that [Cambodia’s long-ruling leader] Hun Sen places Cambodia’s relationship with China above Cambodia’s membership in Asean.”
Jesse Johnson also wrote: “Ahead of the communiqué’s release, Japan had also apparently worked to pry summit host Laos—another Chinese ally—away from Beijing’s grip, with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida offering to support the development of Laos’ energy and farming sectors, as Kyodo News reported late Sunday.”
“China reacted angrily to Kishida’s remarks,” Johnson wrote and quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang’s statement posted on the ministry’s website Sunday: “We urge Japan not to interfere with and hype the South China Sea issue. Japan is not involved in the South China Sea issue, and it has a disgraceful history. It has no right to make irresponsible comments about China.”
Japan has a critical role to play
But the JT report offered countering words from Tang Siew Mu, head of the Asean Studies Center at ISEAS, who said that Japan has a critical role to play in offsetting Chinese dominance in the region. “It is very important for Japan to continue reaching out to Cambodia and Laos, which should be broadened to include trade and investment, and not just focusing on aid and technical assistance,” Tang said. “Such efforts take time for fruition and Japan has to play the long-haul strategic game and not be disheartened by the occasional bumps on the road.”
“The alternative,” Tang added, “would be to give up on Cambodia and Laos, which effectively means handing over these two frontline states to China.”
Other experts around the world wrote appreciative analyses of the UNCLOS Tribunal decision not only because it helps to clarify the disputes in the South China Sea but will also help disputing parties in other parts of the world. One such expert, Roncevert Ganan Almond, a partner at Washington, DC-based Wicks Group, who has advised the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on international law and has written extensively on maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific, wrote an extensive article in The Diplomat.
He wrote: “Ultimately, all claimants have a shared interest in peacefully resolving the maritime disputes. The PCA’s decision provides a fresh opportunity for diplomacy in the South China Sea and ensures that any action in the region will be subject to the strict scrutiny of a global audience.”