It was a bizarre day in Asia’s game of thrones on Tuesday: a united Association of Southeast Asian Nations released a tough statement on the South China Sea and then retracted it just hours later. The WSJ reports:
Their comments, distributed to media by Malaysia before the statement was withdrawn, came amid China’s diplomatic blitz to discredit a coming international legal ruling on territorial claims that is expected to deliver a setback for Beijing.
In a Tuesday statement issued after a meeting with China’s foreign minister, top diplomats from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations urged respect for international law in resolving disputes, a thinly veiled swipe at Beijing’s refusal to accept the ruling from an arbitration tribunal in The Hague.
Southeast Asia clearly remains divided on China. The democratization of Myanmar was a big blow for China and Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that she plans to steer the country closer to the West. But Cambodia and Laos continue to have good relations with Beijing, and Thailand has been edging away from the U.S. since the coup in 2014 created a rift with Washington. China accounts for nearly fifteen percent of Southeast Asia’s total trade. Even Vietnam, which has expressed deep concerns about the South China Sea and hopes to build up its military with newly-available U.S. arms, can’t easily distance itself from Beijing.
It’s worth noting Malaysia’s role in releasing the original statement. Malaysia conducts a lot of trade with China and hosts a large ethnically-Chinese minority that has strong business ties to China. Over the years, Kuala Lumpur has balanced its relationships with China and the United States. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared to be leaning away from Beijing, working to strengthen relationships with Washington and Australia. Yet Najib’s signals have been mixed lately: At the end of May, he called for enhanced military collaboration with Beijing.
Malaysia is a useful case study in the geopolitical challenges facing Southeast Asia: it has economic interests on one side, and security concerns on the other, and the two are not always in conflict. For sound economic reasons (and cultural ones: Malay Muslims have a strong antipathy towards Chinese Malaysians), Malaysia does not want to become even more reliant on Beijing, and the South China Sea is a convenient wedge that can also help Malaysia diversify its economy: in its efforts to weaken and contain China, Japan has been trying to position itself as an attractive alternative investor in Southeast Asia. Malaysia is currently considering a Japanese bid for a high-speed rail project between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
More than any ASEAN statements, the success of Japan’s efforts (and America’s) and Southeast Asia’s receptiveness to them will be an important measure of whether the region is rebalancing from China or not.