US fails to unify Asean on South China Sea

The South China Sea dispute is concentrating minds in Washington. Source: Flickr

US President Barack Obama announced that he and Asean leaders had discussed the need to ease tensions in the South China Sea and agreed that territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully and through legal procedures.

The joint statement after the two-day Sunnylands conference in California did not include the specific references that the US had been seeking on Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

Obama said he and the Asean leaders had reaffirmed “our strong commitment to a regional order where international rules and norms and the rights of all nations, large and small, are upheld”.

He said: “We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarisation of disputed areas. When Asean speaks with a clear and unified voice, it can help advance security, opportunity and human dignity.”

The US had been hoping to find a common position on the South China Sea, where China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims.

But Asean chair Laos and neighbouring Cambodia have no claims to the South China Sea and close economic ties to China and Cambodia has blocked previous attempts to establish an Asean position on the issue, insisting that members deal with Beijing bilaterally.

The joint statement expressed broad principles rather than anything specific about China’s intentions. It stressed “mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality and political independence of all nations … and a shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes”.

The statement also mentioned “a shared commitment to maintain peace, security and stability in the region, ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and over-flight”.

Meanwhile, Fox News reported that civilian satellite imagery showed China had deployed advanced surface-to-air missiles on one of the contested islands in the South China Sea.

Obama said the US would continue to help allies, strengthening their maritime capabilities.

The US and Asean made advances on trade and investment and had agreed to help the six members of Asean which had not signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to meet its entry criteria.

Obama announced an initiative, dubbed US-Asean Connect, which he said would involve a series of hubs across Southeast Asia to coordinate economic engagement.

Emirza Adi Syailendra of Nanyang Technological University writes: “The US-Asean meeting suggests that relations between the two are warm. Nonetheless, there is reason to question whether US support for Asean centrality will outlive Obama’s administration. Many worry that the next US leader will be focused on domestic issues, or on the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. The diversity of political systems and attitudes towards human rights in Asean are another impediment for the US government, which is often seen by its domestic constituents as too soft towards the non-democratic members of Asean.”