ASEAN all adrift over South China Sea consensus

    WORLD  17 June 2024 - 22:04

    South China Morning Post has published an artice arguing that divisions are undermining the grouping’s centrality as nations from Malaysia to the Philippines disagree on the China threat and nurture different priorities. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim recently talked down the Philippine approach to disputes with China in the South China Sea and talked up Malaysia’s “more aggressive way of diplomatic engagement” as being more successful.

    With Malaysia set to chair Asean next year, Anwar’s statement carried immense strategic significance.

    Speaking at the 37th Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, Anwar admitted that Malaysia and China had also faced “some very serious issues” but managed “relatively more successful” relations as Malaysia is deemed “really neutral” amid the superpower rivalry in the region.

    In an indirect criticism of America’s growing strategic involvement in the South China Sea, Anwar underscored that “there should not be involvement with other parties” beyond China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, so as not to “complicate the matter”.

    This is a direct contradiction of the Philippines’ strategic orientation, which involves doubling down on security cooperation with Western partners as a counterbalance to China.

    It is hard to overstate the divisions within ASEAN, where leaders often seem to inhabit parallel geopolitical universes.

    A combination of differing strategic priorities, domestic political dynamics and the consensus-based decision-making process will continue to undermine Asean’s centrality and complicate efforts to negotiate an optimal diplomatic response to the maritime disputes.

    Anwar’s intervention came just days after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, in a keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, said “illegal, coercive, aggressive and deceptive actions continue to violate our sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction” in the South China Sea – seen as a reference to China.

    In the past year, Filipino and Chinese maritime forces have come into conflict several times over disputed land features, most notably Second Thomas Shoal, which hosts a de facto Philippine military facility on the grounded Sierra Madre vessel.

    Manila has accused Beijing of deploying water cannons to disrupt and intimidate Philippine patrol and resupply vessels, leading to several servicemen being injured.

    Marcos Jnr also warned in Singapore that “China’s determining influence over the security situation and the economic evolution of this region is a permanent fact” while “the stabilising presence of the United States is crucial to regional peace”.

    Framing his foreign policy orientation as a defensive measure against a far more powerful China, Marcos made it clear that “Filipinos do not yield”, signalling his commitment to stay the course by deepening his country’s wide network of security partnerships, which include the trilateral grouping with the US and Japan, and the quadrilateral “Squad” that includes Australia.

    Still, he emphasised that the Philippines is not interested in fully aligning with the West in a new cold war, since choosing sides is “never a choice” and, crucially, that both China and the US “are important” for Asia’s peace and stability.

    Marcos, whose father’s regime was a founding member of Asean, has consistently called for growing solidarity and cooperation among regional states while pursuing “minilateral” cooperation with like-minded countries such as Vietnam.

    There are reasons to be sceptical about Asean members’ cooperation on South China Sea disputes. To begin with, Asean’s unanimity-based decision-making makes it extremely difficult to agree on a shared language and mutually acceptable legal regime to effectively manage the maritime spats. This largely explains why, after decades of negotiations with China, no breakthrough has been made on a South China Sea code of conduct.

    More importantly, Asean members have extremely divergent threat perceptions towards China. Malaysia, for instance, has managed to broadly stabilise its maritime tensions with China despite unilaterally developing energy resources in the contested waters in 2020. This stabilisation is partly thanks to Malaysia’s diplomatic resistance to US-led security initiatives in the region, most notably the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine deal between the US, Britain and Australia.

    As for Vietnam, its booming trade and investment ties with China and their shared concerns over a “colour revolution” at home have brought the communist regimes closer than at any time since the Cold War.

    In stark contrast, the Philippines’ relations with China have been shaped by its long-standing alliance with America and growing frustration over the former Duterte administration’s largely fruitless strategic flirtation with Beijing – and its potentially deleterious “secret agreements” reportedly made with China at the expense of Philippine sovereign rights and claims in the South China Sea.

    Perhaps the most important obstacle to a more unified and robust Asean response, however, is domestic politics. In the Philippines, Marcos is under growing pressure to adopt a tough stance on China, with surveys showing that up to 91 per cent of Filipinos distrust China while 76 per cent see it as the “greatest threat”. As Marcos’ approval ratings slide amid the rising cost of living, he can ill afford to be seen as weak or compromising on maritime disputes.

    In Muslim-majority Malaysia, meanwhile, there is a growing backlash against the West over the Gaza crisis, with China positioning itself as a champion of Palestinian rights. Anwar has a political incentive to adopt a far more critical stance of the United States than China.

    In Vietnam, intra-regime political upheaval and uncertainties over the leadership transition militate against a more adventurist foreign policy, especially on great powers such as neighbouring China. If anything, the rise of more conservative and inward-looking “securocrats” in Hanoi signals growing party-to-party ties and shared Sino-Vietnamese concerns about potentially nefarious Western influence over the country’s rapidly expanding middle class.

    It’s unclear how Malaysia and the Philippines, let alone the whole of Asean, can arrive at an optimal consensus, one that would reinforce the regional body’s centrality in shaping the trajectory of South China Sea disputes.

    Caliber.Az

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