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I. Yaipha asked: What is the role of ASEAN in resolving regional disputes such as the one in South China Sea?

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  • Sampa Kundu replies: The territorial disputes revolving around the South China Sea came into focus in the 1990s as China began to claim almost the entire South China Sea region on the basis of historical records. China’s claim has since been challenged by smaller Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. Indonesia too has few issues especially regarding the Nansha Islands.

    As the major disputant, China, while emphasising its sovereign rights on specific islands, wants to deal with the issues bilaterally. China has been building artificial islands on the Spratlys to purportedly protect its national interests. On the other hand, most of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) want to settle the issues multilaterally and want ASEAN to play a central role in it.

    As the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was established in mid-1990s, it was expected that ASEAN would be able to raise its voice against China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea. However, ARF proved to be a toothless organisation and various efforts by ASEAN to restrain China from being hostile in the South China Sea (be it the implementation of the non-binding 2002 Declaration on the Conduct DOC of Parties in the South China Sea or the progress on the establishment of the binding Code of Conduct COC  for the South China Sea) have miserably failed.

    Few ASEAN members even tried to involve extra-regional powers to balance China’s growing assertiveness in the region. However, the situation takes more twists and turns as the Southeast Asian disputants have conflicting claims even between them.

    China clearly has a dual-track approach towards the region. Beijing prefers to deal with regional countries through bilateral frameworks and mechanisms on the South China Sea issue, but recognises ASEAN as a collective entity when it comes to the question of economic cooperation and integration of the region.

    In addition, China’s investments in the region are too overwhelming for any country in the region to ignore. This has also caused differences amongst the Southeast Asian countries which tend to have varied perceptions about China’s economic engagements in the region. Countries like Malaysia and Cambodia tend to adopt softer approach towards China as they do not share any territorial dispute with China. Similarly, Myanmar too has a softer attitude given China’s huge investments in the country.

    China’s success in dividing the Southeast Asian countries first became evident when Cambodia that hosted and chaired the 2012 ASEAN Summit refused to issue the ASEAN communiqué to avoid condemning China’s assertion in the South China Sea. Member countries again failed to agree on issuing a joint statement specifying China’s growing stakes in the South China Sea at the end of the 2014 ASEAN Summit held in Myanmar.

    In the latest ASEAN Summit, held in Malaysia in November 2015, the member countries once again failed to come up with a joint statement referring to China’s assertiveness as a threat to regional peace and stability. It is clear that countries in the region have different perceptions and attitudes towards China and certainly do not share unanimity in their approach towards ASEAN.

    The failure of multilateralism to craft a unified approach on resolving regional disputes is as much a reality for ASEAN as is the fact that it gives China ample space and opportunity to vigorously nurture and pursue its proclaimed national interests in the region.

    Posted on January 07, 2016