China has expressed anger at remarks made by ASEAN secretary general Le Luong Minh on the disputed South China Sea. But as analyst Phuong Nguyen tells DW, Beijing's assertiveness is only pulling the bloc closer together.
Minh, who is also a veteran Vietnamese diplomat, told the Manila Times last week that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rejects Beijing's policy of using its so-called nine-dash line to assert its sovereignty over large parts of the South China Sea. Until recently, the ten-member group had taken a softer stance on territorial disputes involving some of its member states, limiting itself to expressing concerns and calling for a peaceful resolution.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reacted by stating that ASEAN was not a party to the South China Sea dispute and accusing Minh of making "partisan" statements that "do not accord with the facts nor suit his position." Beijing has long stated that territorial disputes should be discussed on a bilateral basis.
The Chinese claim almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei and triggering territorial disputes. Last summer, China's deployment of an oil rig in waters also claimed by Hanoi escalated tensions in the region, sparking violent anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam.
In a DW interview, Phuong Nguyen, an expert on China-ASEAN relations at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, talks about the impact Minh's statements are likely to have on bilateral ties and why China's assertiveness in the region is making ASEAN more cohesive.
DW: Do you believe Le Luong Minh was speaking for all ASEAN members?
Phuong Nguyen: Minh said two things: That the nine-dash line is "not binding on any claimant" and that ASEAN supports the Philippines' efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution in its own territorial dispute with China. His point on the nine-dash line is not new and closely mirrors that of many ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea disputes.
Nguyen: 'Minh's remark will attract attention from many who will read it as representative of ASEAN's point of view'
When China submitted its nine-dash line map to the United Nations in 2009, Vietnam and Malaysia filed a joint claim to the continental shelf under UNCLOS to protest the map China put up. In 2011, the Philippines filed a protest against China's nine-dash line with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
Moreover, the Philippines filed a memorial last year before an international tribunal to challenge the legality of the nine-dash line. Vietnam has criticized the nine-dash line on many instances.
Even Indonesia, which does not consider itself a claimant, has protested China's map on the basis that it overlaps with Indonesian territory and requested China to clarify its claims within the nine-dash line. So Minh's position is more than just a partisan statement, as China claims, but I believe he was not trying to speak for all ASEAN members.
What impact are Le Luong Minh's statements likely to have on China-ASEAN ties?
His statement does raise concerns for Beijing on several fronts. First of all, Minh is in principle ASEAN's top diplomat and his remark will attract attention from many who will read it as representative of the grouping's point of view, or at least the majority of its member countries.
Second, Minh framed the nine-dash line within the international rule of law, saying "there is no way it can be accepted by any party to the UNCLOS," a reference to the fact that China has long resorted to historical claims, rather than international law, as the basis for its nine-dash line.
This second point is not new, but the more it gets repeated, and especially at an official level, the more it hurts China's reputation and makes it look out of touch with the rest of the region on the issue.
And third, it makes public the fact that ASEAN supports the Philippines' decision to file arbitration against China on the dispute between the two countries, a sentiment some individual ASEAN governments had privately expressed to Manila before. The Philippines' decision to take China to court over the South China Sea has enraged Beijing to say the least.
But Minh also told the Manila Times that the South China Sea is but one of many areas in the substantive China-ASEAN relations. China and ASEAN countries maintain extremely robust economic ties, and ASEAN continues to look to China as a growth engine that can benefit the region. His statement will not likely hurt China-ASEAN overall ties, but it may force China to reflect on whether its own actions in the South China Sea could cause a gradual shift in ASEAN's outspokenness on the issue in the long run.
We should keep in mind that the position of the secretary-general of ASEAN is designed to wield little authority, as member countries all have their concerns about sovereignty and non-interference. But interestingly, whereas the last secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, said he was worried the South China Sea could become "Asia's Palestine," the current secretary-general has gone on to make more high-profile statements on this topic.
Why has ASEAN not taken a clear stance on the issue and could this now change following Le Luong Minh's statements?
The default position of ASEAN in recent years has been to call for the implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which China and ASEAN signed in 2002, and the early conclusion of negotiations on a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea.
Within this framework, ASEAN and China have established mechanisms to hold regular talks and consultations; and if ASEAN is to call for a peaceful resolution to the disputes in accordance with the rule of law, it cannot be seen as diverging from this mechanism, however ineffective it may look to some.
But the grouping in recent years publicly expressed its view on specific developments that could potentially emerge as major flashpoints in the region's waters. For example, in 2013, ASEAN and Japan issued a statement in which their leaders pledged to work together to ensure freedom of overflight in the region, in response to China's earlier announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, an area of dispute between China and Japan.
ASEAN reemphasized the importance of freedom of overflight again in 2014. And earlier this year, defense ministers of ASEAN countries issued a statement which mentioned concerns among some members about reclamation work being done in the South China Sea, although they did not mention China by name.
China's deployment of an oil rig in contested waters last summer sparked violent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam
Many points in Minh's remark were made in the context of the Philippines' legal case against China, which is currently one of the focuses for ASEAN, as the ruling on the case is expected later this year. So ASEAN will continue to stick to the existing CoC framework while speaking out on specific concerns as its members may see fit.
Has China's aggressive stance in the South China Sea brought ASEAN closer together or further apart?
It has been a bumpy journey for ASEAN, as claimant and non-claimant states don't always see eye to eye on the South China Sea; and even among claimants, there are nuances in their different approaches. But the trend line shows that ASEAN countries have and will grow closer over time because of the South China Sea.
ASEAN bands together and continues to thrive until this day in great part because it is a collection of small states nestled between large regional powers. Some ASEAN countries used to not see conflicts in the South China Sea as something in their backyards.
But the course of China's actions in recent years shows that Beijing is willing to use force and other leverages that come with being a large economy to bully its smaller neighbors and achieve its own goals and ambitions, and this cuts at the heart of ASEAN's raison d'être, which is to maintain the region's autonomy from major external powers.
What role do you see China playing in the future of ASEAN and is Beijing likely to change its policies in the South China Sea?
Under President Xi Jinping, China wants to build a "community of common destiny" with ASEAN by promoting further interdependence between China and ASEAN countries through trade, investment, and physical infrastructure. Currently, ASEAN is China's third-largest trading partner, and China is ASEAN's top trading partner.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, triggering territorial disputes with some ASEAN nations
Bilateral trade in 2014 was $444 billion, and China wants to bring this up to $1 trillion by 2020. China has been on an economic offensive in large ASEAN countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and even Myanmar, since 2013, and sees these economic linkages as the way forward for the relationship.
There is also hope on Beijing's part that this economic offensive will alleviate the region's anxiety about the "China threat" and in the long run help efface disagreements in other areas. ASEAN welcomes these incentives, but worries that China will increasingly use its economic power as leverage in sovereignty disputes and to forge a Sino-centric order that may undercut the centrality of ASEAN in the regional architecture.
These contrasting dynamics will underwrite China-ASEAN relations in future years. China has defined the South China Sea as one of its "core interests," which for Beijing means that it will do everything in its power to defend this interest, and while Beijing may resort to different tactics under different circumstances, it will not back down on the South China Sea anytime soon.
Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).