Conflict continues over South China Sea
May 2, 2017 | Expert Insights
What happened at the 30th ASEAN Summit?
Chairman for the 30th ASEAN Summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in his statement on 29th April 2017 showed marked relaxation of ASEAN countries’ attitude towards China regarding the South China Sea dispute.
Widely seen as strengthening of ties between the two, diplomats view it a strategic move by the Chinese to gain control over the resource-rich waterbody by influencing Philippines.
The statement recommends setting up a hotline communication between officials of ASEAN countries and China in times of maritime emergencies. It emphasised Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations, with possibilities of free trade pact between ASEAN and six other states — Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand with the potential to boost global trade.
The statement also promised assistance to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam with respect to regional integration.
However, unlike the statement of the 29th Summit which highlighted grave concern over Chinas aggressive move of constructing artificial military islands, the 30th Summit witnessed the drafting of a Code of Conduct regarding the dispute over the crucial waterbody to promote peace and development.
President Duterte’s policy of appeasement towards China was clearly not welcomed by the other ASEAN members especially by Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei who also claim accession to the waterbody.
However, he had hinted towards this prior the Summit by calling pressurising China a vain effort. Duterte defended his decision on grounds of easier lobbying and better trade relations with more aid from China to ASEAN.
The lenient attitude adopted by ASEAN towards China reflects improving relations between China and Philippines. Acting as the Chair of the Summit, President Duterte seems to have placed the needs of his country before that of the association. Philippines will benefit greatly from this since its fishermen can fish in the Scarborough Shoal after a four-year blockade.
While his predecessor president, Benigno Aquino, had strongly opposed Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and vehemently opposed it, Duterte has reversed the policy. Him welcoming three of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) to his home town of Davao, Mindanao further confirms his allaying attitude towards China.
China’s success in steering clear of the accusations makes obvious its control over the neighbouring nations.
China’s resurgent relationship with the Philippines is the exact thing needed for their plans in the South China Sea. When once they were faced by adversaries all across the areas surrounding the sea, they now find from the ASEAN summit that certain nations like the Philippines will now back them.
Given the current international scenario, this also sheds light on changing alliances between ASEAN and the US. Former US president Obama’s administration had condemned China’s actions in the waters as a violation of international law, contradictory to its present stance.
All in all, though the statement in general was a negotiated one, the new draft statement reintroduced a call for no further "land reclamation and militarisation" of the sea. This clearly emphasizes the ASEAN countries reluctance towards an absolute takeover of the sea by China.