At a summit in Manila this weekend, ASEAN foreign ministers showed a touch more backbone in criticizing China than widely expected, reports Reuters:
Southeast Asian foreign ministers ended an impasse on Sunday over how to address disputes with China in the South China Sea, issuing a communique that called for militarization to be avoided and noting concern about island-building. […]
The communique late on Sunday takes a stronger position than an earlier, unpublished draft, which was a watered-down version of one issued last year in Laos.
The agreed text “emphasized the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint”.
It said that after extensive discussions, concerns were voiced by some members about land reclamation “and activities in the area which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tension and may undermine peace, security and stability”.
Unfortunately, this kind of mild rebuke is what passes for newsworthy political courage at ASEAN these days, where China has long bullied members into omitting even oblique criticisms of its island-building. In this case, the slightly tougher stance may have been driven in part by the United States. In a strong joint statement with Australia and Japan this weekend, the U.S. urged ASEAN to adopt a legally binding code of conduct to constrain Beijing’s maritime activity, while denouncing China’s land reclamation and militarization in no uncertain terms. That suggests that Washington has been trying to steer ASEAN members toward taking a stronger stance against China: a welcome sign of engagement after the U.S. has lately seemed missing in action on the dispute.
But it is doubtful that the Chinese are quaking in their boots over these rhetorical rebukes. ASEAN may have summoned the nerve to give China a rhetorical slap on the wrist, but Beijing still achieved its main objective at the summit: the negotiation of a wishy-washy, noncommittal “framework” for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which no one seriously expects to be legally binding. Reuters again:
Foreign ministers of Southeast Asia and China adopted on Sunday a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, a move they hailed as progress but seen by critics as tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power. […]
All parties say the framework is only an outline for how the code will be established but critics say the failure to outline as an initial objective the need to make the code legally binding and enforceable, or have a dispute resolution mechanism, raises doubts about how effective the pact will be.
The Chinese certainly seem happy with the situation, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi touting the framework as a diplomatic coup and a sign of “really tangible progress” on the dispute. And he has good reason to celebrate: with negotiations for the actual code set to extend for months, China will have plenty of time to fortify its maritime positions. And with China set to prevail in making the code unenforceable, Beijing is already proving American entreaties to be hollow and ineffectual.
Rebukes aside, then, the basic situation remains unchanged. Until China’s rivals (and especially the United States) decide to back up their rhetoric with action, Beijing will continue to shrug off their criticisms and plow ahead in the South China Sea, as its opponents sputter ineffectually from the sidelines.