China’s decision to place and defend an oil rig in the disputed waters of the South China Sea was arguably a calculated push-back against President Obama’s recent trip to the region, during which he reaffirmed America’s commitment to its allies. But it was also a test of China’s neighbors. Would they present a unified front against their overweening neighbor, whom they view with apprehension for similar reasons?Apparently not: Despite strong words from the Vietnamese Prime Minister at the ASEAN conference, the final communiqué skirted the issue in a big way:
The leaders, who work by consensus, did not mention the dispute in their final statement on Sunday. Myanmar then released a statement after the meeting was over that expressed “serious concerns over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea,” but did not mention China. It called for self-restraint and the resolution of disputes by peaceful means.The group’s refusal to weigh in appeared to be a victory for China and underlines how there does not yet appear to be a willingness or ability to address the territorial disputes in the South China Sea collectively. At least five nations claim islands in the sea, a major shipping lane and potential flash point as China becomes more assertive and hungry for resources.
This is, of course, nothing new. ASEAN famously failed to come to agreement over just this issue almost two years ago, with Cambodia reportedly siding with China then as now. It could be that, over time, China’s neighbors will figure out how to coordinate in order to effectively balance against China. For now, however, China’s divide-and-conquer strategy seems to be working.