Asean needs some serious soul-searching on its ties with a friend showing signs of increasing assertiveness

by Tang Siew Mun For The Straits Times / October 8, 2016

The peaceful waters of the South China Sea increasingly look like an optical illusion. Calm optimism seems to define its surface, but beneath the tranquillity lie strong undercurrents slowly wearing down Asean-China ties.

For starters, Philippine-China relations appear to be on the mend in the wake of the Arbitral Tribunal’s July ruling on the Philippines versus China case on the South China Sea, with both parties agreeing to commence bilateral talks. Before that, China had surprisingly pledged to finalise the framework for the Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea by the middle of next year.

It remains to be seen if China could translate those initial positive overtures into tangible outcomes. Until and unless Beijing delivers on these pledges, it will continue to be judged by its record of being long on rhetoric and short on delivery. The Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties (DOC), signed in 2002 which has since languished on the bilateral agenda, is a case in point.

 China’s stalling tactics in implementing the DOC is a stale stratagem most familiar to Asean, but Beijing appeared to have upped the ante at last month’s 17th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit, where China is an observer in the 120-member international organisation.

Under ordinary circumstances, the NAM Chair will conform to the organisation’s standard procedure of entertaining requests to update relevant paragraphs in the NAM Final Document. Thus, it caught many by surprise when the NAM Chair, Venezuela, rejected Asean’s request to update the paragraphs relating to South-east Asia in the Final Document. Until now, Venezuela has not provided a justification for its actions, but clues for Venezuela’s actions may be found in China’s US$65 billion (S$89 billion) financial assistance over the past years.

Hence, one can only draw educated conjectures of China’s hidden hand in guiding the outcome of the NAM Summit.

China’s brazen move was not only a challenge to Asean, but it has also gravely undermined the legitimacy and independence of the NAM, an organisation that was established in the heat of the Cold War by distinguished Asian statesmen like Sukarno, U Nu and Zhou Enlai. If China can deploy Trojan horse tactics without abandon in NAM to silence Asean, it could very well do the same to other regional organisations in suppressing discussions deemed inimical to China.

The NAM episode brought back memories of the 2012 Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting debacle in Phnom Penh, where China’s proxy helped to scuttle discussion on the South China Sea, resulting in the failure to issue a joint communique for the first time in Asean’s history. Unlike in Phnom Penh, the NAM incident did not end with a quiet victory lap on China’s part. Segments of the Chinese media and academia continued to pile on criticisms on Singapore, which Beijing has wrongly perceived as the Asean “ring leader”.

For example, The Global Times, an influential Chinese media outlet linked to the Chinese Communist Party, was off the mark in the reporting of the NAM saga. Its editor-in-chief, Mr Hu Xijin, erroneously singled out Singapore for insisting on “adding contents which endorsed Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration case”. In actual fact, the update submitted by the Asean Chair to the NAM Chair clearly did not contain any mention of the Arbitral Tribunal award. Read more…

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