ASEAN Rejects South China Sea Tensions in Favor of Centrality

It was expected that the 2016 ASEAN summit would lead to a repeat of the 2012 meeting in Cambodia, when the ASEAN member states’ foreign ministers failed to issue a communique. However, during this year’s meeting in Laos, the ASEAN representatives decided to act otherwise, adopting a communique despite the ongoing South China Sea disputes. According to Viktor Sumsky, director of the ASEAN Center at MGIMO University, now it is not the time for further escalation of tension.

The South China Sea issue remains a stumbling block for ASEAN, and the organization’s members do not have a united position on the issue.

“From the moment when, three years ago, the prospect of arbitrage appeared, two things became clear. First, that the United States was the mastermind of using international arbitrage to settle the South China Sea dispute. Second, that the decision, which goes against the Chinese position and affects its sensibilities, was predetermined,” Sumsky told in an interview.

Sumsky also noted that the anticipation of this decision was heated to the point where China had to clearly say that it will not recognize the decision made by the arbitrage court on July 12.

“It became clear that in this case, international legal settlement principles led to the opposite of the needed result, which is the use of international law to settle disputes. The decision obviously leads to heated tempers and tensions as opposed to their reduction. This put all players in the region on alert,” Sumsky said.

In this context, the Laos communique reflects an understanding that now is not the time to increase tensions, according to Sumsky. However, the meeting’s communique does not reflect what the United States and its allies wanted. In their view, ASEAN member states should have expressed a general sentiment toward that Hague court’s decision on the China-Philippines dispute regarding the South China Sea, according to Sumsky.

“Despite the fact that the United States and their allies, such as Japan and Australia, are not part of these territorial disputes, they made a statement, which in essence demands that China and the Philippines recognize the necessity and the readiness to abide by the Hague court’s decision,” Sumsky added.

“If what the United States strived for had happened, if Asian countries joined to oppose China, and demanded that China should consider the Hague Court’s decision as mandatory for itself, it could be the beginning of the end of ASEAN centrality. From my point of view, it’s very good that this did not occur,” he noted.

In addition, some are showing dismay that the communique does not mention the Hague decision at all.

“There are of course signs of internal tensions within ASEAN, but the fact remains that the communique was issued and it put on record what all members agree regarding the South China Sea,” Sumsky said.

According to Sumsky, this leaves hope that ASEAN centrality will be followed and preserved for the sake of peace, stability and development in East Asia.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.