The Association of Southeast Asian Nations marked the 50th anniversary of its foundation in April with fanfare – celebrating its mission of “one vision, one identity, one community” in Manila with the habitual group photo of members crossing their arms across their chests to link hands with the representatives next to them, mimicking their organisation’s emblem of rice stocks tied in the middle.
The symbolism was hollow though, as thanks to China’s manoeuvres over the South China Sea, the group is less united than ever. China, the elephant in the room, has quietly managed to establish its primacy in the region by convincing the organisation to eliminate a few discordant words from the final statement.
The statement, expected to have been read by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in his role as conference chair, was released 12 hours later. The respected Singapore daily Straits Times, citing a communication from one of the delegations at the closed-door drafting session, reported that an earlier version calling for a halt to actions “such as land reclamation and militarisation that may further complicate the situation” in the South China Sea had been removed. Also missing was any reference to the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favour of Manila’s case against China’s self-proclaimed nine-dash line in the South China Sea, from which Duterte had backed away soon after the announcement in July 2016 – snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, according to critics. Hence, it was not entirely surprising that Duterte had exercised his prerogative as chair to excise the sentence. Only a few days before, he had called both China’s island-building in the waters of the South China Sea and the tribunal’s ruling “non-issues”.
Within the region, there were mixed reactions to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations document’s lengthy litany of anodynes. Some expressed approval of its positive tone in the interests of maintaining harmony among member states who are clearly not unified on many issues. Thailand’s The Nation echoed a China Daily opinion essay, applauding efforts to dispel what it called the bad blood in relations with China, and urged putting disputes behind the contending parties so that a long-delayed framework for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, to which China would be a party, could proceed. A commentator in Malaysia’s Chinese-language Nanyang opined, albeit with dubious logic, that given the summit’s declaration of respect for law and diplomatic procedures, now is the time for China to move forward on its “consistent historical position to proceed with developed its land reclamation on many of the islands in the South China Sea”.
Others were dismayed that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations seems to be regressing. Sovereignty disputes aside and its stated commitment to human rights notwithstanding, the organisation had failed to slow the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar and Thailand. Further, Duterte had condoned killing suspected drug dealers in the Philippines without criticism, let alone trial. Thailand remains under martial law. Perhaps the most graphic phrase came from Canberra’s Asia and the Pacific Policy Society, which described Southeast Asia as having gone “from flashpoint to flat point”, with the summit having displayed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ weak unity and low effectiveness in responding to Chinese pressure.
Duterte’s Filipino critics speculate that, given his upcoming meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the One Belt One Road summit in Beijing, May 14-15, he wanted to offer concessions on territorial matters and scale back military cooperation with the United States in return for trade concessions. While that could serve the Philippines’ national interest, at least in the short run, it had the unintended consequence of simultaneously undermining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ internal cohesion in a way that’s ultimately dangerous to the region.
One view held that a few strong leaders among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations states might bring the organisation back to its founding principles. Tokyo’s Nikkei blamed a dearth of leadership within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for this apparent backsliding, opining that there have been no successors to towering figures like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew or Indonesia’s Suharto. Leaders, unfortunately, cannot be manufactured, and none seem to be emerging.
Capitulating to China
Some blamed the Trump administration for pulling the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby enhancing the attractiveness of China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Plan. Donald Trump’s abrupt volte-face from strong critic of China to apparent capitulation was also unnerving. In the space of a few weeks, the US president had acceded to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wishes by accepting the One China Policy – although specifying that it was America’s One China Policy, which is not the same as Beijing’s. Trump also praised the Chinese leader as someone for whom he doesn’t want to make difficulties, indicating that he would consult with Xi before speaking again with the president of Taiwan. When the US Pacific Command requested permission from senior Defence Department officials to perform freedom-of-navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, permission was refused. Thus far, there are no indications that the United States intends to take a more active role in the region and, given the divisions within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to do so would court criticism from those who prefer to cast their lot with China.
The United States is not the only non-Southeast Asian state to capitulate to China’s wishes. In Perth, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop hosted a meeting on the non-politically sensitive topic of stopping the trafficking in conflict diamonds, and after loud objections from Chinese delegates, the chair ejected a Taiwan delegation, participating under the previously China-sanctioned title of Chinese Taipei. Critics point out that the chair should have warned the Chinese to observe proper decorum or leave.
Capitulation to China’s wishes does not necessarily translate into friendship, and suspicions about China among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are evident as well. In a survey carried out by the ASEAN Studies Centre, more than 73% of 318 regional affairs experts polled answered that they had little or no confidence that Beijing will “do the right thing” in contributing to global peace, security and governance. The same poll indicated that although 69.8% of respondents felt that Southeast Asia would be more stable with US engagement, America was seen as a less dependable ally than before the Trump administration took power: 54.3% of respondents felt that America could not be relied on to uphold free trade, human rights and international law in the region. More than half also felt that Washington had lost strategic ground since Trump became president.
The next Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum, this one with dialogue partners including both the United States and China, will meet in November, once again in Manila. Duterte’s many domestic critics could succeed in softening his tone by then. And Trump, who has said he will attend the Manila meeting, may clarify his commitment for the region, amid what has thus far been an erratic foreign policy agenda. If not, the “new type of great power relations” in Southeast Asia promoted by China will see Asia’s largest economy and military firmly in charge and the other countries adjusting to the new regional order.
June Teufel Dreyer is professor of political science at the University of Miami. She is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and previously served as commissioner of the US-China Economic and Security Commission established by Congress. Her most recent book, Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations Past and Present, was published by Oxford University Press in 2016. The tenth edition of her China’s Political System: Modernization and Tradition, is scheduled for publication in 2018.
This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.