Filipino Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario blamed Hor for cancelling the entire statement in a fit of pique and Hor blamed del Rosario for insisting on citing the standoff. Whatever the reason, the Cambodian minister remained silent in a thousand languages, thus conveying a clear message: ASEAN could not even agree to disagree.
And then Marty Natalegawa, the Indonesian minister of foreign affairs, came to ASEAN’s rescue. In two days of emergency shuttle diplomacy, Natalegawa delivered the six points that Hor read out at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting on 20 July.
The six points reaffirm the foreign ministers’ commitment to observe the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and follow the guidelines for its implementation; to work toward an early adoption of a Code of Conduct meant to strengthen the 2002 Declaration; to exercise self-restraint and avoid threatening or using force; and to uphold the peaceful settlement of disputes in keeping with universally recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
But the six-point agreement by itself does not resolve the splits within ASEAN over the South China Sea. Along with China and Taiwan, four Southeast Asian states — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — claim sovereignty over most or part of the Sea. China has relentlessly pressured ASEAN to say nothing about these competing assertions. For this reason, at the end of the foreign ministers’ meeting, when Hor blamed the failure to agree on a communiqué on ‘two countries’, he was accused of splitting ASEAN on Beijing’s behalf. There is little doubt that the two countries in question are the Philippines and Vietnam, the ASEAN states most vocally opposed to China’s own territorial claims. Hor went on to claim authorship of the six points, saying he had raised all of them at the foreign ministers’ meeting and that the two countries kept opposing his points because ‘probably, there was a plan behind the scenes against Cambodia’. So much for reconciliation.
There is yet another problem: the six points do not mention the confrontation at the Scarborough Shoal. Though it was a necessary compromise made for the sake of consensus, the omission could set a precedent for self-censorship: that ASEAN must not even allude to instances of misconduct involving China. Seeing, hearing and speaking no evil may buy time for a solution to be reached — or it could help indefinitely to postpone that outcome.
Meanwhile, without a formal settlement, claimants may act unilaterally to tilt de facto realities in their own favour. On the very day that Hor read out ASEAN’s peace-making points, China reported that it would form a Sansha Garrison Command to carry out military activities in the Paracel and Spratly islands and the Macclesfield Bank.
More encouraging is something that two of the six points do mention: the need to act in conformity with international law, including the provisions of UNCLOS.
The Law of the Sea sets down rules to distinguish between territorial seas and extended economic zones, and defines claimants’ rights in these jurisdictions. But UNCLOS does not answer the question of sovereignty — whose lines and rights they are — and China has explicitly rejected the dispute-settling provisions contained in the Law. Nevertheless, in this type of territorial dispute, ambiguity is the enemy of progress, so references to UNCLOS are encouraging as reminders to the claimants that they need to specify, by latitude and longitude, exactly where ‘their’ lines lie.
The importance of citing UNCLOS is that it might foreseeably nudge disputants away from demagoguery toward cartography, that is, toward a shared understanding of what is in dispute, exactly where it lies, and what might be done about it, including joint exploration in contested areas.
Finally, Natalegawa’s mission to rescue ASEAN’s face underscores the group’s need to speak in one voice, constructively at the right time and consistently over time. The ‘ASEAN way’ of seeking consensus tends to limit what the group can do to the willingness of its least willing member, and the ‘ASEAN way’ of leadership tends to privilege the preferences of the yearly chair.
An institutional solution would involve upgrading the ASEAN secretariat, enlarging its budget and authorising its secretary general to be less of a secretary and more of a general. In the early years of the organisation, it made sense to place national sovereignty — the autonomy of member states — at the heart of the ‘ASEAN way’. Today, the group needs to embrace greater coherence as a regional actor.
But institutional reform is unlikely for the time being, so a pragmatically political solution is the only way forward. ASEAN is in urgent need of being led quietly and ably ‘from behind’ by a member state with a sense of responsibility, the asset of credibility, and a preference for persuasion over confrontation.
Indonesia has shown its Southeast Asian colleagues and the outside world that ASEAN cannot lead without being led. Will Jakarta build on this achievement by moving the group forward toward a unified position on the South China Sea? Will ASEAN avoid being divided and overruled by China? Or, when ASEAN’s next summit is convened back in Phnom Penh in November, will Cambodia again play the spoiler’s role of a proxy for Beijing?
Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University.
This is an abridged and slightly revised version of an article that originally appeared here on the Asia Times Online.