The week of August the 3rd saw the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) host several meetings including its annual Regional Forum summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Given recent events, issues over the disputed South China Sea were given much attention despite not being on the official agenda. China, a member of ASEAN+3 strongly opposed discussion of the dispute at the meetings and essentially demanded prior to their commencement that the issue not be raised. That sentiment was not shared by others and instead ASEAN members and others repeatedly raised the issue resulting in criticism from Chinese officials.

South China Sea Issue: China Strikes Back At Its ASEAN Critics

The Meeting

China struck back at its critics and detractors in ASEAN who sought to bring the South China Sea dispute to the forefront of issues for discussion. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told Reuters last Monday, “It [the South China Sea dispute] should not be discussed.” He further stated, “This [ASEAN] is not the right forum. This is a forum for promoting cooperation. If the U.S. raises the issue we shall of course object. We hope they will not.” The view from Washington was quite the opposite with State Department Deputy spokesman Mark Toner saying “This is a forum in which critical security issues need to be brought up and discussed, and frankly, … we believe that the developments in the South China Sea meet that criteria.”

True neither China nor the U.S. are members of ASEAN but apart from China and Taiwan, every other disputing nation in the South China Sea is. Additionally China takes part annually in ASEAN+3 meetings while it and the U.S. take part in its East Asia Summit’s and its Regional Forum. In so much the forums provided by ASEAN are ideal for discussion of the dispute especially when there is the potential for it escalating into conflict.

Despite the demands from China, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi declared that ASEAN would include the dispute in its agenda stating, “It [the South China Sea dispute] will be discussed”.  Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters prior to the meeting, “[the] South China Sea is an issue. We cannot pretend that it’s not an issue.” Meanwhile in his opening remarks, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said ASEAN has and should play a major role in reaching an “amicable” solution to the South China Sea dispute.

China also attacked ASEAN for supporting a U.S. proposal that land reclamation be halted in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Singapore before leaving for the meeting that such a proposal is unrealistic, stating “What to freeze? Every country has a different consideration.” He added, “What’s the standard for freezing? Who is to judge the process of the freezing activity? These are very complex questions. So the freeze proposal may seem even-handed, but it’s actually unrealistic and will not work in practice.” In response though, Malaysian Foreign Minister Aman argued that ASEAN members were in agreement that steps should be taken to de-escalate tensions and that “exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate tension must be enhanced”.

This back and forth between China and ASEAN members and others continued throughout the week of meetings. On Thursday the 6th, Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario criticized China’s South China Sea policy and praised the arbitration case his country has brought against China in The Hague. Supporting del Rosario was Japan’s Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida. The response from China was immediate with Foreign Minister Wang stating, “the situation in the South China Sea is stable” and accusing the Philippines and Japan rather than China, of being in violation of international law. Additionally, Indian Minister of External Affairs VK Singh supported the viewpoints of countries such as the Philippines stating, “We share the concerns expressed by our ASEAN colleagues about the evolving situation in the South China Sea”.

China has condemned the arbitration case raised by the Philippines and though invited to take part in it, has repeatedly refused to do so. China argues that the Permanent Court of Arbitration has no jurisdiction in settling the dispute and has requested that Manila either drop the case or take part in bilateral negotiations. Both options presented by China have been refused by the Philippines. Concerning Japan, Beijing is incensed by what it sees as Tokyo’s involvement in an issue to which it has no place. Japan is not a claimant nation in the dispute though has been increasingly involving itself. Joint military drills with the Philippines and declarations calling China a threat have done little to enhance relations between Tokyo and Beijing.

Result

At the culmination of the weeklong meeting, ASEAN released a final communique that called for the development of a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. For over 10 years, the creation of such a code has been discussed by ASEAN but so far has failed to materialize apart from an informal COC signed by ASEAN and China in 2002. Included in the joint declaration was a swipe clearly directed at China, “The Meeting discussed matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of the serious concerns expressed by some Ministers over the recent and on-going developments in the area, including land reclamation which have resulted in the erosion of trust and confidence amongst parties, and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.”

China, ASEAN, and the South China Sea

China has in the past declared that the South China Sea dispute should be resolved through bilateral meetings between claimant nations. Recently though this firm stance has been slightly softened as China has hinted discussions could eventually include ASEAN. ASEAN members Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei are all claimants in the South China Sea and this provides for an excellent opportunity to resolve the issue in a regional intergovernmental body. Ultimately though China will continue putting forth its current demand for bilateral negotiations as the involvement of additional nations in settling the dispute will only bring more pressure against China.

The loudest critics of China within ASEAN are the Philippines and Vietnam which is logical as their positions in the South China Sea are most threatened. Malaysia and Thailand on the other hand are somewhat softer in their criticism as Malaysia despite being a minor party in the dispute hosted the forums last week and since Thailand is developing closer relations with China. Regardless, last week saw numerous foreign ministers of ASEAN member states all make statements highlighting the importance of the South China Sea dispute and that it should not be as China has suggested something to be ignored.

Analysis

Beijing is increasingly on the defensive over the South China Sea dispute. As seen by the comments made at the ASEAN meetings last week, the regional attitude is decidedly against China which is largely viewed as destabilizing the region through its provocative actions in the South China Sea. China opposes discussion of the dispute in forums it cannot control or for it to become the dominant issue in the region. Furthermore, Beijing does not want to see the issue internationalized any more than it already is. China can handle U.S. involvement in the region and has said as much in the past. On the other hand, the introduction of countries such as Japan and India who have no claims in the disputed region is unacceptable to Beijing, especially when these countries are supportive of China’s opponents.

There is the strong possibility that the arbitration case launched by the Philippines will result in a ruling unfavorable to China which will force China to either accept the ruling of an international court, or reject it and in the process show that Beijing does not accept the opinion of international courts. This situation has unnerved Beijing as its refusal to take part in the arbitration is based on its interpretation of international law; failure to abide by an international ruling unfavorable to China will show that it is hypocritical. There is also the fear that if the Philippines are successful, other countries with disputes involving China will make similar moves.

In all fairness, China’s opposition to the South China Sea dispute being raised at ASEAN last week was to be expected. Somewhat less expected was China demanding the issue not to be raised. China is not an ASEAN member and is no place to dictate to that body what can and cannot be discussed. The fact that China did so might be a sign that Beijing is increasingly worried that while it has the military upper hand in the dispute, its international political position is far from being secure.