Wednesday, July 20, 2016

ASEAN at the Rubicon #SouthChinaSea

Not so fast

ASEAN's response to the Hague ruling so far has been, to say the least, timorous. That may change should China push her luck

Rowan Callick doesn't seem optimistic:
Much will depend on how the 10-member Association of Southast Asian Nations — of which Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei as well as The Philippines all have South China Sea claims, while Indonesia’s navy recently arrested Chinese fishing vessels — responds. 
The ASEAN foreign ministers meet in Vientiane, Laos from tomorrow. They may well be unable to reach their required consensus in responding to the verdict, in the face of the views of leaders such as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen — whose country, like Laos, depends heavily on China — and who said last month he “will not support any judgment by the court”. 
China has said it stands ready to continue to negotiate a regional code of conduct for the sea. But that has been under discussion for 14 years already. A better if just as remote an outcome might be an agreement for all parties to exploit the sea’s resources — obviously sustainably — together.

Up until now, China has offered mainly economic incentives to cooperation (Michael Hart):
Overall, China’s drive for increasing regional economic interactions in the maritime domain, has contributed to ASEAN’s recently visible division over the South China Sea issue. On one hand, six of ASEAN’s members wish to put the South China Sea disputes to one side and maintain a favorable relationship with China in order to benefit from its Maritime Silk Road initiative. On the other hand, the claimant states – particularly Vietnam and the Philippines – are more wary of China’s economic initiatives and rhetoric of co-operation, and fear being held ransom over the unresolved territorial disputes and conflicting claims in the South China Sea. 
China recently followed-up its Maritime Silk Road initiative by launching the ‘Year of China-ASEAN Maritime Co-operation’ in 2015, hoping to advance a global perception of China as a responsible state committed to maintaining regional peace and security. The initiatives have succeeded in partially shifting attention away from the negative image of China associated with the South China Sea disputes, and have contributed to a growing divide within ASEAN over how to handle the matter – resulting in several recent failures to issue joint statements regarding the disputes. 
China’s initiatives have enabled many regional countries to envisage the mutual benefits which could be gained from closer maritime co-operation with China on the economic front, through the AIIB, Maritime Silk Road and the Maritime Co-operation Fund.

But - and this is a big But - environmental damage to the area and the resulting food security concerns are staring them in the face (James Borton):
With more marine scientists from all the claimant nations and others from ASEAN, in agreement that there’s a fishery collapse unfolding, than there’s more than sufficient common ground to address food security in the region. Looking out over the next several years to 2020 and beyond, the dual challenges of rising demand from growing populations and economies, are in a direct collision course from over exploitation, pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change. 
Furthermore, the number of coral reef and fish species in these contested waters has declined precipitously to around 261 from 460 species, and the list of critically endangered species now includes Green turtles, giant clams, and Hawksbill turtles.McManus, Gomez, Shao all point out that many of the coral reef fisheries along the coasts of the South China Sea have been heavily overfished, especially along the coasts of southern China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The evidence shows that harvests of adult fish have been in a steady and steep decline. They all suggest that offshore reefs may be critical to preventing local extinctions of targeted fish species.

As is sovereignty - unlike China, most ASEAN states are not monolithic (Chin Tong Liew, Wing Thye Woo):
Second, by militarizing outcroppings and artificial islands in the South China Sea, China is unwittingly strengthening ultranationalist groups in the Asean states. This development forces moderate leaders in these countries to adopt a tougher stance toward China than they otherwise would, in order to preempt attacks from the ultraright and assuage their generals. A case in point is Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s recent visit to the Natuna Islands on a warship, a show of force in response to incursions there by Chinese fishermen and Navy vessels. 
China must know that the material advantages from closer Asean-China economic relations will not be enough to guarantee smooth diplomatic relations. Most Asean member-states are middle-income countries with educated elites who hold diverse views. And even extremely poor and politically illiberal Burma (Myanmar) has reduced its dependence on China in response to active wooing by the United States. 
China should rethink its insistence that negotiations over its territorial claims could be conducted only with individual Asean states, and not with Asean as a bloc—a stance that creates the impression that China is committed to bringing about the group’s breakup. But China should not encourage Asean’s demise, because that would drive several now-neutral Asean states further toward the United States. Moreover, because Asean must represent 10 countries with one voice, and must reach a consensus before it speaks, China has little reason to fear that a common Asean negotiating position would be totally unacceptable—particularly given recent history.

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