Nov 23, 2012
Source: The Economist
President Barack Obama at 4th ASEAN-U.S in Phnom Penh, Nove 19. Photo: Quoc Viet/RFA
IF ONE word sums up the style of the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), it is “consensus”. So when its meeting in Cambodia in July ended in open disagreement, many assumed it was an aberration. But even at the highlight of ASEAN’s calendar, the series of summits in Phnom Penh between November 18th and 20th, including the 18-member East Asia Summit, the group could not present a united front. A row erupted again over the same issue—how to manage China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea—and between the same ASEAN protagonists, the Philippines and Cambodia. ASEAN seems divided as never before, some think terminally.
The summit attracted leaders from China, India and Russia, as well as America’s re-elected president, Barack Obama. The row erupted when Cambodia, widely seen as China’s closest ASEAN ally, announced a consensus not to “internationalise” the festering dispute—ie, not to involve America. However, the Philippines, an American ally and claimant in the sea, rejected this, saying that it had “the inherent right to defend its national interests” by appealing to whichever international court or country it wants to. Vietnam was equally annoyed with Cambodia.
China claims sovereignty over almost all the sea, thought to hold vast reserves of oil and gas, as well as over the mostly tiny specks of land within it. Of ASEAN members, Vietnam claims all the Chinese-controlled Paracel islands to the north, as well as the contested Spratly chain to the south, where the claims of Brunei, Malaysia, and, especially, the Philippines, overlap with China’s. The bust-up in ASEAN pits its claimant countries against non-claimants close to China, such as Cambodia, Laos and possibly Myanmar. Singapore has been critical of Cambodia over the issue. Indonesia tries to act as the peacemaker.
This time, China probably had the worse of the argument. China insists that negotiations with rival claimants must be bilateral. The Philippines and Vietnam, however, want multilateral negotiations, involving ASEAN, to agree on a long-promised code of conduct in the sea to reduce the risk of conflict. At the summit this view prevailed, although the Chinese, as ever, refused to commit themselves to such negotiations. An added ingredient in all this is America’s continuing pivot to Asia. It now vies for influence with China in a region where maritime security is seen as essential to growth (see Banyan).
America says it is neutral as to the ownership of the disputed islands and shoals. But at the summit it did add its weight to calls by Vietnam and the Philippines for collective negotiations. Similarly, America says it is neutral in the sovereignty dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. But it has confirmed the islands are covered by its security treaty with Japan.
Indeed, it is anxiety over China’s new assertiveness as much as economic opportunity that is prompting America’s deepening engagement in the region. Mr Obama’s quick visit to Thailand, where he signed new military agreements, reflected this. So did his historic trip to Myanmar—the first by a serving American president—where he hoped to encourage reform and the continuing drift away from China.
That will be a theme for many years to come in South-East Asia. Much was made of how Mr Obama’s first post-election tour reflected America’s renewed commitment to Asia. But Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, turned up in Bangkok just a day after Mr Obama, and also received a warm reception. The region’s cannier countries will make the most of this competition while it lasts.