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China’s ASEAN Coup

Washington is outmaneuvered on the South China Sea Dispute by deft diplomacy, as ASEAN renders itself useless.

May 5, 2016

Washington is outmaneuvered on the South China Sea Dispute by deft diplomacy, as ASEAN renders itself useless.

In February, it seemed that President Obama had achieved a minor diplomatic coup by bringing the leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to a summit with him in California. It apparently augured well for U.S. engagement in a region confronting Chinese expansionism in the (so-called) South China Sea.

But, as it now turns out, this proved just a quickly forgotten photo opportunity when you compare with the major coup recently delivered by China’s foreign minister Wang Yi.

He effectively managed to neutralize ASEAN on the most important political issue the group faces – the disputes over Chinese designs to expand its maritime borders in the South China Sea.

The statement by Wang on April 24 in the Laotian capital Vientiane has been largely ignored in the West. In addition, it was treated with an embarrassed silence by the majority of ASEAN members.

But it undeniably serves the Chinese purpose of making concerted opposition to their imperialist maritime claims more difficult.

The three minnows of ASEAN

Wang announced that Laos, Cambodia and Brunei had all agreed that island and sea boundary disputes should be settled bilaterally – meaning always with China.

That allowed Wang to say that these three nations had rejected efforts to “unilaterally impose an agenda on other countries” from the outside since that would be contrary to national sovereignty.

The South China Sea issues were thus not the concern either of ASEAN or of international bodies such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which is set to rule soon on a Philippine case against China.

Although a signatory of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, China refused to accept the jurisdiction of the court. Now it has ramped up its diplomatic efforts in advance of a decision due soon which is expected to be generally in the Philippines’ favor.

The defection of the three minnows of ASEAN is important because the group is supposed to act on a consensus basis.

The need for such consensus has long stalled the use of strong language in opposing China’s claims which, from a historical perspective, are nonsense.

But ASEAN has hitherto managed to keep the item on the agenda and has been intermittently, but without result, been discussing the development of a Code of Conduct among claimants which would avoid confrontations.

In February, it had expressed concern at development on the sea issue, though Laos and Cambodia opposed any mention of China.

Meanwhile, China has continued to create facts on the ground, with aggressive actions including its seizure of the Scarborough shoal off the Philippine coast, land reclamation on islets to create landing strips, and sending fishing fleets protected by coastguard vessels deep into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the other littoral nations.

Laos has long been a cipher for China. From the Chinese perspective, the small country is also viewed as a bridgehead into Thailand. Laos has added importance this year as chair of ASEAN.

Neighboring Cambodia, too, sees China as a natural friend as well as source of investment.

Little Brunei sends a signal

The real surprise lies in Brunei joining this group, especially considering its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) waters fall within China’s nine-dash line sea claim.

The expectation was that Brunei would be expressing solidarity with Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.

Interest in Chinese money may have been more persuasive. Brunei’s EEZ is known to contain oil and gas which it will need to replenish its dwindling reserves.

But these lie very deep – 5,000 metres below waters 1500 metres deep. The cost is prohibitive unless oil prices rebound further, but China may be happy to pay such a price for a big political gain.

The little, oil-rich state is ruled by a Sultan known for unpredictability. Once noted for luxury excess and a paradise for the highest class of hookers, the Sultan is now bent on imposing Islamic law in a three-stage process which will, at least in theory, culminate in stoning of adulterers and chopping off limbs of thieves.

Presumably, Sultan Bolkiah hopes that doing China’s bidding will provide some protection for his little state of 400,000 people, the remnant of a once large Sultanate which occupied the whole of northern Borneo and part of the southern Philippines. He must be worrying to go broke and being absorbed by Malaysia and/or Indonesia.

How China outflanked Indonesia

China’s neutralizing of ASEAN is especially troubling for Indonesia. As the largest and most populous member of the group, it acts as an informal leader and moderating influence.

The defection of the three little minnows also comes at a time when Indonesia, which long said it was not involved in the South China Sea disputes, is making a more determined efforts to protect its fisheries.

It must also worry about the proximity of China’s nine-dash line claim to the rich gas field off its Natuna islands.

China’s power and expansionist interests have divided ASEAN and made a myth of Indonesian assumptions of quiet leadership. Wang Yi’s April 24 statement was the blunt statement of a reality which has long been evident.

Yi’s move has exposed the reality that has been fervently denied by foreign ministries in many capitals that are still wedded to ASEAN illusions. It can be denied no longer. China has spoken: ASEAN is politically irrelevant.

A new group of four

The ASEAN divide makes it a good occasion to re-think the concept. The very name South East Asia is of relatively recent creation – by the British in the 1940s.

ASEAN, in turn, was invented in the 1960s as an anti-Communist bloc — from which grew a regional group, but one oriented towards trade. That need is still there but as a political tool for its three most principal states.

Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, between them, account for 75% of ASEAN’s population. ASEAN can no longer serve them as a shield. For that reason, it is now counter-productive.

Malaysia, too, needs allies — not merely to defend its own islands and EEZs, but also to protect the integrity of a nation divided by 350 miles of sea, some of which lies within China’s nine-dash line.

These four countries need to form a smaller group that is focused on their common interest – and one more capable of coherent relationships with the United States, Japan, India and Australia as well as China.


China’s foreign minister neutralized ASEAN on disputes over maritime borders in the South China Sea.

A Sultan who is imposing Islamic law that will culminate in stoning of adulterers rules Brunei.

China’s powers have divided ASEAN and made a myth of Indonesian assumptions of quiet leadership.

China has spoken: ASEAN is politically irrelevant.

Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia need to form a smaller, coherent diplomatic group.