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The ASEAN position on the South China Sea dispute: Quo Vadis?

dlaminiIn May 14, 2014 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held its 24th summit hosted by Myanmar. It was a historical meeting for the bloc as Myanmar was hosting the summit for the first time, and also considering the fact that the group is preparing for the establishment of ASEAN community by 2015. However, one of the issues that topped the agenda was the South China Sea (SCS) dispute and, as expected, it was a subject of contention.

In the 2012 ASEAN summit in Cambodia, the bloc failed to produce a joint declaration of the summit because of the disagreement on the SCS dispute. On the basis of the summit discussions and outcomes, this article considers the prospects of the ASEAN taking a position to address the SCS dispute

Approaching the Myanmar summit, there was much anticipation that the ASEAN leaders would help to address the SCS issue, especially following the recent escalation of the territorial dispute between China and Vietnam. This follows Beijing's unexpected move on the 2nd of May 2014 to place an oil rig in the waters considered to be Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The action marks the first time China has placed one of its oil rigs on what is considered to be an EEZ of another state without prior permission.1 According to Vietnam, this action is not only provocative, but it is illegal under the international law and violates the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

However, the ASEAN summit did not directly voice out disapproval against China's action. Instead, the ASEAN leaders avoided antagonising Beijing, as there were uncertainties in long discussion, on whether to release a separate statement on the SCS issue, or to address the issue in a sub-paragraph of the original statement.2

Instead, the ASEAN leaders opted to agree in the final declaration of the summit to strengthen cooperation for a full and effective implementation of the 2002 declaration on the conduct of parties in the SCS. Basically the code of conduct is a six point principles on the SCS that calls on all parties to exercise self-restraint and non-use of force, as well as refrain from taking actions that would further escalate tension and to work towards an early conclusion and of the Code of Conduct.

China always insists that ASEAN is not a proper platform to discuss the SCS dispute, saying it should be dealt with through bilateral negotiations with the states involved, namely: the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. This is the strategy China has been using to bypass any diplomatic negotiation through ASEAN on this issue. The fact that China remains ASEAN's largest trading partner and the largest trading member of many of its member states provides China with much influence on how ASEAN responds to the SCS dispute.3 For this reason, many of the member states without a direct stake in the South China Sea maritime disputes are opposed to antagonizing China for an issue that in their view doesn't concern them.4

Based on the summit outcome, it is plausible for one to argue that, it will continue to be a challenge for ASEAN to play an influential role in resolving the SCS dispute without upsetting Beijing. Chances are, this will continue to weakens ASEAN's position to resolve the dispute to get China honor the principles of the 2002 code of conduct declaration

Therefore, in a way the SCS will continue to threaten the unity of ASEAN as a regional bloc and this might have negative impact when ASEAN formally becomes an economic community in 2015. Some in the region believe that the ASEAN responds this way also because it believes that "the journey [consultations with China] is more important than the destination [achieving a binding COC]."5

Now, this beggars the question: what will happen if China continues to assert its influence in the SCS without recognizing the maritime claims of other states as it is the case with Vietnam. So far the ability of the ASEAN bloc is limited and it remains to be seen if it will increase as the bloc becomes a fully-fledged regional community with a strong collective security framework.


1 China's Oil Rig Gambit: South China Sea Game-Changer?
http://thediplomat.com/2014/05/chinas-oil-rig-gambit-south-china-sea-game-changer/ 
2 How China won the ASEAN summit
http://thediplomat.com/2014/05/how-china-won-the-asean-summit/ 
3 Solving intra-ASEAN South China Sea dispute
http://thediplomat.com/2014/05/solving-intra-asean-south-china-sea-disputes/
4 ibid
5 China's Oil Rig Gambit: South China Sea Game-Changer?
http://thediplomat.com/2014/05/chinas-oil-rig-gambit-south-china-sea-game-changer/ 

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