The ASEAN summit held in Phnom Penh in the mid November opened with many expectations and closed with ambivalent results that seem to cast doubt on the common destiny of the Association, at least at the political level.
At the beginning of the year many observers expected a binding code of conduct to be concluded during the Cambodian chairmanship, ten years after the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in Phnom Penh by the ASEAN and China Foreign Ministers. Instead, last July the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) held in Phnom Penh failed, for the first time in 45 years, to agree on a joint communiqué due to the South China Sea issue, and probably because of Chinese pressure on the chairmanship. The consequent announcement on a six-point principle on the South China Sea, made by Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on July 20–with consensus on the document promoted by “regional giant Indonesia”–was seen as a stopgap measure meant to paper over deep differences.
Early in November, at the UN General Assembly in New York, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario “made an emphatic speech to rally global support for his country’s rule of law position vis-à-vis China over ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea,” as reported by Richard Javad Heydarian on Asia Times online. Manila’s wish to internationalize the issue had been clear before the beginning of the ASEAN summit.
In fact, on the eve of the summit–and despite China’s warning that the South China Sea issue should not overshadow the talks–ASEAN members said they were ready for formal talks with their bigger neighbour, even though they were still debating their own version of a maritime code. However, later on the same day, Cambodian foreign ministry official Kao Kim Hourn said that Southeast Asian leaders “had decided that they will not internationalize the South China Sea from now on.” A statement which was immediately rebuked by Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who said that no such agreement had been reached.
“There were several views expressed on ASEAN unity which we did not realize would be translated into an ASEAN consensus,” he said according to his spokesman. “How can there be a consensus when two of us–probably Vietnam–are saying we’re not with it,” stated Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario. The Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, emphasized the necessity to implement the DOC and the ASEAN’s Declaration on Six-Point Principles for an “early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC)”, as reported by the Vietnam News Agency.
The unity of the Association is clearly under pressure. And nothing explains the origins of this pressure better than the photo released by Xinhua—the official Chinese government media– on Nov. 22, showing a smiling Hun Sen inaugurating a China-funded national road in Prey Veng province, in southeastern Cambodia.
Hence, the year has passed with no binding agreement on an issue that concerns Asia’s biggest potential military trouble spot. ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan will leave office at the end of 2012 after five years characterized by many achievements is some areas. The next Secretary General, Vietnamese diplomat Le Luong Minh, will be called to face not only the great challenges inherited from the previous tenure–like the Burmese democratic process and the promotion of Human Rights as established by the Declaration adopted in Phnom Penh by the ten members—but also the SCS issue in which his country is directly involved.
The ASEAN summit was immediately followed, on Nov. 20, by the East Asia Summit (EAS), once again in Phnom Penh. In his first foreign mission soon after his re-election, US President Barack Obama urged Asian leaders to rein in tensions, saying there was no reason to risk an escalation of their territorial disputes. According to diplomatic sources present at the talks, behind closed doors the representatives from ASEAN, China and other countries spoke frankly on the South China Sea issue. Maybe so, but the statement released by the chairmanship makes no mention of the South China Sea (called East Sea by the Vietnamese and West Sea by the Filipinos). “The Leaders also exchanged views on regional and international issues,” states the press release. In any case, the result is that everyone reaffirmed their position but no common solution was offered.
In the meantime, two days after the EAS, the Philippines and Vietnam condemned the decision of Chinese authorities to issue e-passports containing a map of China which includes disputed maritime areas. While “the Philippines strongly protests the inclusion of the nine-dash lines in the e-passport as such image covers an area that is clearly part of the Philippines’ territory and maritime domain,” as stated by Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, the Vietnamese government has written to Chinese representatives in Hanoi protesting the new passport and asking to “reverse their incorrect content.” “This action by China has violated Vietnam’s sovereignty to the Paracel and Spratly islands as well as our sovereign rights and jurisdiction to related maritime areas in the South China Sea, or the East Sea,” said Luong Thanh Nghi, a spokesman for Vietnam’s foreign ministry at a press conference held in Hanoi. For its part, Beijing authorities tried to smooth ruffled feathers saying that “the passports’ maps with their outlines of China are not targeting a specific country.”
“A picture in a passport doesn’t change our position on the South China Sea remains […] these issues need to be negotiated among the stakeholders, among ASEAN and China,” commented on Nov. 26 at daily press briefing the spokesperson for the United States Department of State, Victoria Nuland.
It seems that the enormous amount of time spent in preparatory meetings, workshops, summits, discussions and debates has lead to nothing. “I keep wondering if there exists a paradox that the more the efforts made by the parties, the more the tension in the East Sea,” said Dang Dinh Quy, president of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, in his speech during a conference on East Sea held in HCM City on Nov. 19. In a period of economic crisis it might be wiser to reduce spending on organizing such events and opt instead for establishing a direct communication “hotline” between ASEAN members and China, as suggested by ASEAN Secretary General Surin.