Is China Making ASEAN Irrelevant?

 / 05:32 AM August 04, 2017

As the Philippines leads the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Manila this week and next, international attention will focus, not on the 10 member-states that have reason to celebrate, but on what some analysts are starting to call an honorary member of the regional grouping: China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will be the man of the hour, and his meetings and statements will be watched closely. In part, this close attention is based on the elephant, or rather the dragon, in the room: China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea, sweepingly invalidated by the arbitral tribunal ruling of July 12, 2016, remain the single most contentious issue confronting Asean. Already, draft statements are being parsed to see how the South China Sea issue will be addressed. Already, the expected signing of a Framework of a Code of Conduct, a full 15 years after China agreed with Asean to forge not a mere framework but the actual code that will govern maritime disputes in the region, has generated, not excitement, but disappointment. Because the process of resolving these disputes (which directly involve four Asean members and affect Indonesia, Asean’s largest economy) will help determine Asean’s continuing relevance in the next 50 years, Wang’s conduct will be closely followed.

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at right shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, August 3, 2017. AP Photo

In part, Wang will be the focus of attention because of the increased volatility in the Korean peninsula; China is North Korea’s principal ally, and North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho will take part in the Asean Regional Forum. (It is a credit to the Philippine hosts that it insisted on the participation of North Korea, despite the reservations of the United States.) The ARF is a signature achievement of Asean, helping lead to the Six-Party Talks; all six parties involved in nuclear nonproliferation talks on the Korean peninsula (both Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States) will be in Manila. But now even Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang are under some strain. How Wang will conduct himself on the North Korea issue will also be closely watched.

Also, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be making his regional debut, but as the diminished representative (at the helm of a dysfunctional, hollowed-out State Department) of a diminished superpower (the American security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific is now in the small, shaky hands of a blundering, undisciplined commander in chief). On the other hand, despite the sting of the arbitral tribunal ruling, Wang will represent a much more assertive, ascendant power. Their meeting in Manila will be studied closely.

Not least, Wang will be watched because it is under his shadow that Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano will make his first major appearance on the international stage. Indeed, Wang paid Cayetano a visit last week, to sign a “memorandum of understanding on strengthening cooperation.” During their joint press briefing, Cayetano expressed his belief that the signing “will reinforce the foundation of the relations between our foreign ministries through exchanges and collaborative activities.” He did not say a word about the South China Sea disputes. This is an additional reason to watch Wang, and China, at the Asean meetings.

From the start of the disputes, China has sought to engage each of the Asean member-states involved in bilateral discussions; the very rationale that led to the formation of Asean encouraged its members to avoid such bilateral approaches but instead course any disputes through multilateral forums. In 2002, it reached a major breakthrough. China agreed to begin negotiations on a code of conduct to govern the disputes. Fifteen years later, Beijing is offering Asean the consolation prize of a “framework.” In typical Asean style, the signing will be accompanied by great fanfare. But in fact the framework questions the very relevance of a regional association, which cannot enforce diplomatic breakthroughs previously reached.

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China says it has sovereignty over all the South China Sea north of its “nine dash line.” On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said this claim by China was not valid. But China chose to ignore international law.


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