ASEAN had another convenient opportunity to assert itself in the case of Hainan’s new fishing regulations. ASEAN foreign ministers met in January at an official retreat in Bagan, Burma. What was their reaction to the new fishing regulations for the South China Sea? They “expressed their concerns on the recent developments in the South China Sea. They further reaffirmed ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea and the importance of maintaining peace and stability, maritime security, freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea.” Of course, there was no specific mention of China. And like the ADIZ, not likely to get China’s attention in any regard. It is also incongruous that both Japan and the U.S.—countries with no territorial interests in the region—both condemned the move, as did ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Chinese have rebuffed all “concerns.” Just last week, Hainan’s Communist Party Secretary indicated that encounters with fishing boats were occurring on a weekly if not daily basis.
Southeast Asia’s Security Interests
ASEAN is a pillar of all its members’ strategic visions. At any given time, for example, the Philippines may be frustrated with ASEAN’s lack of support or initiative concerning its interests in the South China Sea. Yet ASEAN is still close to the heart of the Philippines’ foreign policy. This is because the Philippines as well as the other members have bought into ASEAN’s long-term interest in balance. It is reflected at the bilateral level as well as the multilateral level.
A case in point: protracted negotiations over the U.S.–Philippines Increased Rotational Presence Framework Agreement. Hopefully, the U.S. and the Philippines will come to agreement on this soon, perhaps to coincide with President Obama’s upcoming visit. But the pace of the negotiations betrays a concern for its own sovereignty vis-à-vis the United States that is strong enough to compete with its worries about China. And this is in the Philippines, the most pro-American nation in the region and one of the most pro-American places in the world.
Similarly, Vietnam may be stressed by the Chinese over the South China Sea. That does not, however, make it ready for anything but a slow evolution of strategic relations with the United States; it also directly courts the Chinese.
ASEAN is not the only—or necessarily the principal—venue that Southeast Asian nations use to pursue their individual interests. They seek to manage their external security environment through a variety of mechanisms.
Yet even here, as much as these relationships make real contributions to their security, ASEAN nations seek a semblance of balancing them. Across the board, they have countervailing, albeit often far less extensive, relationships with China.
Most ASEAN countries have a foreign policy explicitly formulated to cultivate “a million friends and zero enemies,” as the Indonesians put it. The Thais call their similar approach an “omnidirectional” foreign policy. In short, Southeast Asian nations are managing downside risks of U.S.–China competition by hedging against both ends.
Southeast Asia’s Economic Interests
Southeast Asian hedging also has an upside. Like the U.S. itself, all members of ASEAN are intensely interested in the economic benefits of relations with China. China has been ASEAN’s largest trading partner since 2009, and over the course of 2012, that trade increased by more than 13 percent. (By contrast, total U.S.–ASEAN trade increased by less than 1 percent.)
On the investment side, according to the China Global Investment Tracker, Chinese investment in ASEAN reached roughly $92 billion in 2013, making it the number one Chinese global investment destination. (U.S. investment, as measured by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, is estimated at $189 billion, but with almost three-quarters of it concentrated in Singapore.)
Lessons from ASEAN’s Handling of the South China Sea
This mix of Southeast Asian interests and the consensus decision-making processes make for ineffectiveness in managing the most serious security crisis it has faced since 1991—rising tensions in the South China Sea. For more than 20 years, ASEAN’s engagement with China on the South China Sea has revolved around three objectives: (1) negotiation of a code of conduct, (2) application of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and (3) institutionalization of “self-restraint.” It is failing on all scores. China’s grudging recent acceptance of “consultations” on a code of conduct must be seen in the context of this longer track record. Whether by design or not, what the Chinese are doing is using ASEAN’s plodding, consensus-driven processes against it while simultaneously creating facts in the water.
China’s aggressiveness is not sufficiently galvanizing ASEAN against China’s challenge. Something needs to be done to change its calculation. This argues for greater American pressure on ASEAN while hedging against its continued failure.
It is good that the U.S. is consistently engaged in ASEAN diplomatic architecture. Indeed, there is no other viable alternative to an ASEAN-centered regional diplomatic architecture. Standing up the architecture and participating in it, however, is not enough.
The U.S. has to speak up forcefully for its interests in the South China Sea—not unlike the way Secretary of State Clinton did at the ASEAN Regional Forum 2010.
The most substantive element of this incident was Secretary Clinton’s assertion that claims to water must be based on claims to land. Just last month, Assistant Secretary Danny Russel made an excellent statement affirming this position in the context of recent events. The U.S. should press ASEAN to do the same and to support the Philippines, which has a case pending on the matter before an UNCLOS arbitral panel.
A new aggressive American approach is going to cause ASEAN discomfort. It prefers peaceful, predictable meetings to effective discomfort. Yet, although it may not want to make difficult policy choices that pit U.S. interests against Chinese, neither does it want that choice made for it through U.S. disinterest. This is a point of American leverage.
China-focused ASEAN Policy
The name of the game in the Western Pacific for many decades will be managing China’s rise. It must therefore be explicitly central to America’s interaction with Southeast Asia. This means recognizing ASEAN’s limitations to this end and working to remedy them—if sometimes against ASEAN’s own instincts and self-assessment. Left to formulate its interests absent American pressure, ASEAN will not meet the China challenge in a way that is most conducive to American national interests and long-term peace and prosperity. — (The Heritage Foundation)