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Say It Ain't So
ASEAN Goes Soft On China

Don’t say we didn’t warn you: ASEAN has once again failed to take China to task over the South China Sea, with a toothless statement that largely sidestepped the issue. The Wall Street Journal reports

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations early Sunday issued a final summit communiqué that avoided confronting China’s role in the region, an issue that has imploded meetings in recent years. The statement scrapped harsher language in an earlier draft seen by The Wall Street Journal that included references to China building artificial islands that could be used for military purposes.

The statement was published hours after the summit ended, and mentioned Chinese activity in the South China Sea only to welcome Beijing’s cooperation with Asean on issues such as a framework for a maritime code of conduct. The statement said Asean reaffirmed the importance of pursuing peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to force.

China was apparently lobbying hard over the weekend for the Philippines to neuter the ASEAN communiqué. But as we suggested last week, the game was already up when Duterte announced before the summit that it was pointless to raise the South China Sea dispute. With Cambodia, Laos, and now the Philippines reliably wary of antagonizing China with critical statements, Beijing’s “divide and conquer” strategy still seems to be paying off.

Meanwhile, it is unclear where the the Trump Administration is in all this. The Obama administration tried to instrumentalize ASEAN as an arm of its “pivot to Asia” strategy, seeking to build a multilateral coalition against China’s activity in the South China Sea. But with the organization perennially incapable of coming to a consensus on confronting China, that strategy is clearly due for a rethink.

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  • Unelected Leader

    Forget ASEAN. Thus far, Trump has been soft on the Chinese autocracy, too. At this point, it doesn’t even matter if he is doing so for his own reasons, or simply to make nepotism beneficiary, Kushner, happy and keep bridges in tact for future deals.

    • f1b0nacc1

      To some extent I agree with you, but let me posit that part of the reason that Trump isn’t pressing the issue is that there simply isn’t a whole lot that he can do about it. The time to stop the Chinese was 5 years ago when this began, and we chose not to. At this stage it is too late, and trying to strong arm putative allies into condemning what the Chinese have already done (I was going to call it ‘facts on the ground’, but obviously that is inappropriate….’facts on the sea’, perhaps?) isn’t going to be useful or productive.

      What Trump IS doing is continuing one of Obama’s more useful ideas…encouraging greater defense cooperation between those states directly affected by China’s behavior. There we stand a chance at gaining some substantive success (and no, silly talking shops like the ASEAN group aren’t going to provide anything useful in that sense anyway), and gaining solid front-line allies.

      I am not entirely defending Trump’s behavior vis a vis China (I would have preferred a FAR stronger IP agreement, for instance), but using the SCS as a basis for complaint is neither reasonable nor fair.

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