It’s not on the agenda, it’s not going to be discussed in open forum and short of possibly issuing a brief anodyne one paragraph joint statement for the benefit of the press – reiterating the grouping’s well-known position – it will be the non-event of the Asean Summit now underway in the Philippines’ capital, Manila.
We’re referring, of course, to the South China Sea dispute between the Philippines and China – the big issue as far as the West’s anti-China lobbies and those wanting to embarrass Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (photo) are concerned.
Although having no state legitimacy in this region, Democratic Party members of the US Congress and the Liberal wing of the European Parliament continue to inveigle their way into a regional issue a hemisphere away as they shout from the sidelines like hormonal adolescents egging on a schoolyard fight.
Their continual pressing for this issue to be taken up by the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to all but the extremely naïve, has nothing to do with Asean and everything to do with China – the world power they’re hell bent on containing wherever they can; however they can. The only cause the US-EU partnership is championing in the waters of the South China Sea is their own.
Briefly, what they would like is for the 10-member Asean executive to reference last year’s ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that the Philippines has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, a group of rock outcrops that takes its name from a British East India Company clipper ship that grounded there in 1784. Those opposed to China want to keep this dispute alive as long as possible; those who vilify Duterte want to ram it in his face.
This all goes back to a case lodged with the court by former Philippine president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino in 2013 with heavy support from then US president, Barack Obama – despite the fact that the US had never signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea under Annex VII of which the case had been brought, though that never inhibited Obama as far as quoting it was concerned.
To cut a long story short, the court handed down its decision on 12 July 2016 to the glee of Aquino, Obama and everyone else who wanted China cut down to size, while Beijing, which had never recognised the tribunal’s involvement anyway, simply ignored it.
The court, however, had no powers or authority, to implement the decision, leaving Obama to go into saber-rattling mode with promises of heightened US naval patrols and reassurances that Washington had Manila’s back. This allowed a confident Aquino to step up his jingoistic rhetoric, further damaging his country’s bilateral relations with the Mainland.
Beneath the surface, however, was Obama’s dream – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a large trade block aimed at dominating commerce right in China’s backyard. China was excluded from TPP membership. Unfortunately for him, that ended up on the rocks much like the British merchant ship when in January this year his replacement in the White House, US President Donald Trump, made it one of his first official duties to withdraw the US from the TPP.
Prior to that, however, Obama’s dream was already turning dark. The Philippines had a new president – a resoundingly popular one – Rodrigo Duterte; and his view of the US and its involvement in his part of the world was the polar opposite of Aquino’s. And while the latter had done everything he could to reduce Philippine-China relations to a bitter feud, the former saw in China a welcome future partner.
The result of all that was that Duterte didn’t “press his advantage” with the arbitration court’s decision; he adopted a pragmatic approach opening up his country to Chinese trade and investment – reckoning that, certainly in the immediate term, his people would benefit far more than they would by continuing Aquino’s petulant treatment of their large neighbour to the north.
And that brings us to Asean and today.
Scarborough Shoal is just one of a number of ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. And, indeed, even in that one there is another claimant. That’s Taiwan, which also rejected the tribunal’s ruling, though for obvious reasons – the West sees Taipei as being in its camp where rows with China are concerned – we read very little in the press about the Taiwanese stance.
The two other main South China Sea disputes involving China and Asean members are the Spratly Islands, contested by China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam as well as non-Asean member, Taiwan, and the Paracel Islands, claimed by China, Vietnam and again, Taiwan; and a number of islands in the Gulf of Tonkin, which China and Vietnam dispute ownership of. Indonesia’s variance with the Mainland, meanwhile, is over China’s claims to waters surrounding Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.
We hasten to add that, like Scarborough Shoal, none of these issues will be finding their way onto this year’s Asean Summit agenda either – nor will the fact that China is not the only country building structures on these remote reefs and cays. Vietnam presently occupies around 30 outcrops in the Spratlys on which it’s constructed a number of military facilities and continues to build. Naturally, that’s not something the media dwells on as Vietnam is seen by them as another foil with which it can prod Beijing.
But China and Asean members had a mechanism for resolving maritime territorial disputes that predates Aquino’s unilateral filing of the case in The Hague by more than a decade. In 2002, China and the full complement of Asean states signed the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea – an undertaking by which they all agreed to use “friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned …” in the disputes – ‘sovereign states directly concerned’ being the operative words.
Beijing has never waivered from its position, that: “On issues concerning territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation, China does not accept any recourse to third party dispute settlement; nor does China accept any solution imposed on it”.
For those Asean states involved in maritime disputes with the Mainland, bilateral negotiation is – and has been for some time – the approved and accepted course of action. As far as Asean states that have no such maritime claims – that’s Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand – their position is simple: they have no position, other than to urge friendly resolution, and they will not be drawn by Western powers with vested interests into taking a position.
These are extremely sensitive matters; diplomatically and every other way. The full leadership of Asean is well aware of that and will not be raising anything that’s likely to embarrass any of their members which this issue most certainly would.
All that, then, is a rather long-winded way of saying what we said at the beginning: that Scarborough Shoal, and the wrangling over it – despite the yearning from Duterte’s opponents who want him on the spot over this – will not be taking up any official time at the 2017 Asean Summit.