By Baladas Ghoshal
The 28th ASEAN summit and the 11th East Asia Summit will take place in Vientiane, Laos on 6-8thSeptember. Whether the crucial issue of South China Sea (SCS), particularly after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling, comes under the agenda or not, it will definitely haunt both the ASEAN and China. Both are faced with critical and honest choices – for ASEAN whether it can remain united in the future and can retain its centrality in the maintenance of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and for China whether it would like to be viewed by its neighbours – as a benevolent super power, helping its smaller neighbours to grow along with it and taking note of their security concerns and allay their fears of being overwhelmed by a giant China, or would it like to be viewed as one that is trying to bulldoze its way to establish its hegemony as an assertive big power, making claims on territories and waters that cannot be sustained by any rule-based international order? Beijing can pretend that the PCA ruling has not affected its declared position on SCS and will continue its sabre-rattling through deployment of advanced weapons systems and missiles in the artificial islands it has built, it has definitely dented its image as a responsible power by rejecting a rule-based maritime order.
Although four ASEAN member countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines) have rival claims on SCS, and, therefore, directly involved in the dispute and one more country (Indonesia) affected indirectly, as the so-called nine dash line passes through its Natuna Island, the principle of unanimity that it follows has made practicallyimpossible for the organization to come to any decision in a crisis situation. This was starkly evident both in Kunming in June at the ASEAN- China meeting and in Vientiane in July at the foreign ministers meeting when Cambodia, the client state of China, foiled all attempts by other member countries to issue a joint statement on the SCS.
In Vientiane, the ASEAN was compelled to take an ostrich-like attitude as if no judgement by the PCA had been passed directing all claimant countries to abide by the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). Just because Cambodia and Laos have no direct stake in SCS, can they afford to ignore the imminent threat of China controlling the entire South China Sea at the expense of its fellow ASEAN members and denying livelihood to poorfishermen from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysiaand Vietnam, and eventually put a death knell to ASEAN? The meeting at Vientiane will be another test.
Surely Beijing has a point in its assertion of being a victim country wronged and humiliated by the West in the past, which needed to be corrected to establish its rightful place in the world history. Through its manufacturing prowess and other industrial and scientific development, China has banished the image of a poor country and established itself as the second largest economy and will soon possibly overtake the United States. Undoubtedly China has contributed to the creation of the ‘Asian Century’ being its main driver. Without China’s manufactured goods, the middle class of the world, whether it is in the United Sates or in some remote parts of the world, would not have been able to enjoy luxury goods at affordable prices. This is Beijing’s biggest soft power appeal. But this is all offset by its flexing military muscles and ‘salami slicing’ strategy of occupation of features, reefs and rocks, together with its artificial island building in the South China Sea (SCS) through coercion and gun-boat diplomacy.
China will go down in the history and earn the respect of all its neighbours if it turns the PCA rulingas an opportunity paving the way for countries in the region to discuss a new the Code of Conduct (COC) in the disputed areas in the SCS. Now is the time and ASEAN summit can be the platform where China can take the lead in bringing the COC into fruition and set an example of a benevolent super power taking care of its smaller neighbours.
(Ex JNU Professor; Noted SE Asia Expert & Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies)
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.