There has been a lack of strong language regarding the South China Sea dispute during the 30th ASEAN Summit chaired by the Philippines. This development has not come as a surprise to many, as one of the first actions of the Filipino president Roderigo Duterte’s actions after he came into office had been his rapprochement with China. However, with regards to the dispute in the South China sea, the extent that ASEAN has toned down it confrontational tone towards China is alarming compared to last year.
ASEAN’s new attitude has seemingly baffled many analysists of the South China Sea dispute. In much of Western media, the territorial dispute has often been framed as a matter of defending international law. China is often portrayed as an aggressor who uses its “historical claims” as a cover to pursue strategic objectives or bullying its smaller neighbours due to its sense of entitlement. ASEAN’s decision to tone down the confrontational rhetoric during the 30th ASEAN summit, despite the overwhelming verdict made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration last June, has seemingly confirmed skeptics’ claims that ASEAN is too divided and fragile to assert its own interests.
What many of these analysists ignored, however, is that soft language has been the modus operandi of ASEAN for many decades. This is evident in ASEAN documents such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which set out ASEAN as more than a security alliance. ASEAN places more emphasis on informal dialogue, trust-building exercises, and norm-setting through socialization of “troublemaker states”, than many outsiders may realize, hence why it is often decried as a “talk shop”. The emphasis on trust and norms can be traced back to the Cold War when decolonization created states that had territorial disputes with each other. This was especially prominent with the dispute over the South China Sea islands and Borneo between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. To that end, ASEAN has succeeded in preventing military conflicts between its members through improving their trust in each other. To expect ASEAN to function more like NATO and challenge Chinese assertiveness through military buildup and confrontational rhetoric is, therefore, a violation of ASEAN’s stated core principles.
Furthermore, the surprise and muted outrage by some analysists at perceived ASEAN inaction demonstrate a potential disconnect between how ASEAN states see their interests, and how the United States see ASEAN’s interest. Much like the familiar case of Western Europe during the height of Cold War, ASEAN states have to balance between a rising China, potentially India in the future, and the established regional order centered on Japan. The U.S. European leaders during the Cold War were aware that in the event of military conflict, fighting would take place on their territory. Therefore, during the various thaws between East and West, the European states were much keener on improving the relationship with the Soviet Union than the U.S. through initiatives such as the construction of the Soviet-European natural gas pipelines. Furthermore, many of ASEAN’s economies are underdeveloped and reflect the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. This movement made attempts to take advantage of the great power rivalries to obtain foreign aid assistance for economic and social development. ASEAN is no superpower, and its interests depend on its ability to balance the large regional players to the benefit of its states.
While Trump’s U.S. foreign policy continue to show self-contradiction and unreliability, it is, therefore, no surprise that many ASEAN states have begun to tone down their confrontational rhetoric. To expect ASEAN to become like NATO means supporting the U.S. vision, sending strong confrontational messages to China and ramping up ASEAN members’ military capabilities. This would also mean heavily taxing the capabilities of the ASEAN states. Overall, this would not be in ASEAN’s interests to get the maximum benefits out of the current great power rivalries.