As 2016 chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations, the Laotian People’s Democratic Republic is leading the group toward political irrelevance. And that is doubtless how China, the hand controlling the Laotian glove puppet, would like to see it.
The three minnows of ASEAN, Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, have just undermined ASEAN’s efforts to present some sort of a united front questioning China’s claims and activities in the South China Sea. Feeble though these have been, with endless talk of a developing a Code of Conduct making scant headway, they have at least been commonly agreed.
Meanwhile China has continued aggressive actions, reclaiming land, driving Filipinos from the Scarborough Shoal which lies well within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and sending fleets of fishing boats protected by armed Coast Guard vessels operating 1,000 miles from the China coast to steal the fish from the exclusive zones of Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
But creating facts in the sea while stalling the Code of Conduct, is not sufficient for China. On April 24 in the Laotian capital Vientiane, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced, with an understandable sense of triumph, that an “important consensus” had been reached with the three that disputes over the South China Sea should be resolved entirely on a bilateral basis and not involve ASEAN. According to the Chinese, the consensus criticized any efforts to “unilaterally impose an agenda on other countries” and vowed that national sovereignty would prevail over the regional grouping. None of the other parties has contradicted Wang.
Timed for Hague Decision
This China-created "consensus" was timed in advance of the decision expected in June from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a Philippine case against China. Beijing refuses to accept the jurisdiction of the court but needs to find some diplomatic support given that the court is widely expected to rule largely in the Philippines' favor.
The statement also comes at a time when Indonesia, which long claimed not to be involved in the South China Sea disputes, is making more determined efforts to protect its fisheries and is growing concerned about the proximity of China’s nine-dash line claim to its gas fields off the Natuna islands.
In February, ASEAN expressed serious concern about developments in the South China Sea, with only Laotian and Cambodian opposition preventing a stronger statement. But now the three minnows have effectively said that neither ASEAN nor international courts play any role in regional issues.
In which case, why bother to treat ASEAN as having any political or diplomatic role? Just leave ASEAN as a loose economic grouping with some extra benefits such as visa-free travel and stop pretending that it is anything more. It has long been clear that the overriding national interests of the states abutting the South China Sea were not fully shared by Myanmar or Thailand, let alone landlocked Laos.
As it is, tiny Laos with its long Chinese border, is already the focus of massive Chinese investment and is a bridgehead for the advance of Chinese road and rail systems into Thailand. The Hun Sen regime in Cambodia was installed by the Vietnamese but has come increasingly under Chinese influence thanks to money and historic Khmer suspicion of Vietnam.
Brunei Sultan Blazes Islamic Path
As for Brunei, making sense of the decisions of its autocratic Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is never easy. Two years ago he announced that full Islamic law would be introduced in three stages, culminating in such features as cutting off limbs and stoning adulterers and homosexuals. At the same time, he is trying to reduce dependence on oil and make his petty kingdom into an Islamic version of Singapore, which would call for a far more open society than he consents to envision. All this is very confusing particularly given the Brunei royal family’s past reputation for gross extravagance and as a paradise for beautiful rent-seeking women who dare serious sexual harassment from randy royal children.
Brunei’s EEZ is known to contain oil and gas it needs to replenish its dwindling reserves. Much of its 200-mile EEZ lies within China’s nine-dash line so Brunei’s interest should be in expressing solidarity with Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. But Chinese money may have been more persuasive. Or the Sultan may figure that being a tool of China makes it less likely that Brunei, population 250,000, will eventually be swallowed by Malaysia or Indonesia.
The current divide makes it a good occasion to re-think both the name and the concept of the region. The very name Southeast Asia is of recent creation – by the British in the 1940s to describe territories occupied by Japan from Burma (previously part of British India) to the Philippines vis so-called Indochina, the Malay Peninsula and the Indian (or Malay) Archipelago (Indonesia). ASEAN in turn was invented in the 1960s as an anti-Communist bloc from which grew something bigger but more oriented towards trade.
ASEAN Minus Five?
Trade cooperation is still needed but as a political tool for its three largest states, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, which between them account for 75 percent of its population, ASEAN is now counter-productive. Likewise Malaysia needs close South China Sea allies not merely to defend its own islands and exclusive zones but to protect the integrity of a nation divided by roughly 600 km of sea, some of which lies within China’s nine-dash line.
In other words, these four states plus Brunei, if it could be released from the clutches of a newly medieval ruler, need a new grouping, could find sensible compromises on their own overlapping claims and confront China with a firm and united voice.
Convincing Indonesia of the merits of such as idea would be difficult. Jakarta not only hosts the ASEAN secretariat, such as it is, but harbors a sense that it is both the leader of the group and voice of moderation on all issues. That may have been the case in the past when it still basked in its non-aligned legacy and China was on the margin of regional affairs. But now China’s power and expansionist interests have divided ASEAN and made a myth of Indonesian assumptions of quiet leadership. Wang Yi’s April 24 statement was a blunt description of a reality that has long been evident but fervently denied by foreign ministries in many capitals wedded to ASEAN illusions. It can be denied no longer. China has spoken: ASEAN is irrelevant.