The 36th ASEAN Summit was held virtually on 26 June 2020, with Vietnam as the Chair. It will be followed by another summit, usually held in November coinciding with the East Asian Summit (EAS). The current summit was more of an in-house affair with no interaction with Dialogue Partners or other EAS members.
The summit has drawn attention for its perception on the issue of the South China Sea (SCS). The U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo supported the Summit’s references to United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and called out China for its aggressive behaviour while backing up the ASEAN statement of 26 June, clearly underlining the current animosity between the two nations.
But what did ASEAN really say? The Chairman’s Statement, entitled Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN has many countries pleased that ASEAN is finally calling out China. However, the statement devotes a mere three out of 66 paragraphs to the SCS. More than 10 paragraphs focus on the COVID-19 crisis. Paragraph 13, reaffirming ASEAN’s position on SCS with support to UNCLOS and peaceful resolution of disputes, is an exact replica of paragraphs 4 of a similar statement of the 35th Summit issued in November 2019 by Thailand. The new paragraphs, 65 and 66, are updated versions of the Thailand’s paragraphs 50 and 51. Both those paragraphs express concern about the activities in the SCS including land reclamation, and call for adherence to the UNCLOS principles of self-restraint, building of trust and an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, – all of which have been under discussion between China and ASEAN since 2002.
How could China be called out without riposte from its closest allies in the ASEAN, Cambodia and Laos? A simple explanation is that there is not much deviation from the earlier statement, and Vietnam as Chair has the right to issue a statement with or without concurrence from all members. Again, the statements neither mention China by name nor refer to specific incidents which ASEAN members have suffered at Chinese hands over the last year.
So, why then is there so much jubilation that ASEAN has finally found a voice? The enthusiasm emerges not from the statement, but from what was said by the leaders at the Summit and by the increasing numbers of members speaking up. Besides Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia spoke more clearly than before – though without mentioning China.
In his opening remarks, the Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Xuan Phuc said that ’While the entire world is stretched thin in the fight against the pandemic, irresponsible acts and acts in violation of international law are still taking place, affecting the environment of security and stability in certain regions, including in our region’. President Duterte of the Philippines said ‘Even as our region struggles to contain COVID-19, alarming incidents in the South China Sea occurred. We call on parties to refrain from escalating tensions and abide by responsibilities under international law, notably the 1982 UNCLOS. We urge all parties to adhere to the rule of law and to their commitments to international instruments, including the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.’ As the Country Coordinator of the ASEAN-China dialogue, he warned that the U.S.-China rivalry was getting serious and that there were many constraints in achieving the Code of Conduct, but engagement, unity and strategic goals were critical.
Similarly, Indonesia’s President Joko Jokowi, focused on an ASEAN travel corridor, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the digital economy for increased connectivity and recovery. He also said,‘ASEAN should be a guardian so that our region will not become an arena of power projection conducted by bigger nations’. The statement by the Prime Minister of Singapore focused on efforts to restart the economy and fight COVID-19 while steering clear of the SCS issue.
Clearly, Chinese aggression has been felt by several ASEAN countries, over the last year. In December 2019, 65 fishing vessels and two coast guard ships violated the Indonesian EEZ in the Natuna Sea; a Malaysian exploration near Borneo was hampered by Chinese vessels until they quit; Vietnamese vessels have been interdicted by Chinese ships near Lincoln Island and a boat was sunk at the Paracels. As late as 9 June this year, a Filipino boat was sunk off Reed Island by Chinese interlopers. 
Despite these aggressive behaviours, ASEAN countries are still diffident about speaking up vociferously. An analysis of the statements shows that the media chorus is, perhaps, exaggerated. In fact, more cannot be expected from ASEAN even under the Vietnamese Chairmanship. ASEAN cannot take on China, thanks to all the economic inter-meshing and it is uncomfortable with the U.S.-China rivalry. The grouping is even more discomfited by the uncertainties in the outcome of the U.S. elections in November; the worry is that the loud talk from Washington may change tenor after the elections, leaving ASEAN in the lurch.
ASEAN members will continue to call for the peaceful resolution of disputes, the UNCLOS and the like, while suffering Chinese intrusions and pressures. Their limited hope for this year is the acceptance of a binding COC from China.
Gurjit Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to Germany. He is currently the Chair of the CII Task Force on the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.
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