Asia's Game of Thrones
China Still Rules over ASEAN

As the annual ASEAN summit kicks off in Manila this weekend, the Secretary General is sounding cautiously optimistic on a longstanding goal: negotiating an enforceable code of conduct with China on the South China Sea. Reuters

The Association of South East Asian Nations had not received any guarantees from China in discussions to create a framework for the code within this year, but ASEAN was hopeful a set of rules could be agreed to ward off disputes and militarization, Le Luong Minh told Reuters.

“For ASEAN, such a framework must have substantial elements, and such a code of conduct must be legally binding,” he said in an interview. […]

China’s recent decision to work with ASEAN to draw up a framework for a code, 15 years after they agreed to one, has been met with a mix of optimism and scepticism, coming at a time when Beijing races ahead with development of its seven artificial islands in the Spratlys.

Count us among the skeptics. Yes, China has lately sounded more open to negotiating a code of conduct, signaling some willingness to work with ASEAN to resolve maritime tensions. But many analysts suspect that this is a ploy. Beijing wants to give the appearance of cooperating with ASEAN, and it may agree to a vague framework that restates the principles of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct. But it will not accept a legally binding code that could meaningfully constrain its behavior in the South China Sea.

Besides, other voices in ASEAN have made it clear that the body will not be getting tough on China this time around. Ahead of the summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said it was pointless to raise the South China Sea dispute, since no one could induce China to change its behavior. And according to early reporting, Manila has already caved to Chinese demands to soften an ASEAN statement that included an oblique reference to this past year’s Hague ruling. If ASEAN cannot even agree on a statement indirectly criticizing Chinese expansionism, it can hardly summon a consensus for a tougher, legally enforceable code of conduct.

Put another way, Beijing’s “divide and conquer” strategy is still working. Just as China has previously leaned on Cambodia and Laos to prevent an anti-China consensus from emerging within ASEAN, so too has the Philippines largely been brought over to Beijing’s side. So long as China is able to drive a wedge through ASEAN in this way, the body will remain hopelessly ineffectual in presenting a united front against its claims.

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