For the best part of a month China and the Philippines have been embroiled in a face-off over control of the Scarborough Shoal (黃岩島) in the South China Sea and yet ASEAN, and its member states, have remained curiously silent on the mounting tensions in the archipelago. East Asia is moving into a new period: A Sino-US pact.
In the past ASEAN tried to play a more active role in resolving the South China Sea problem within frameworks such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and by recruiting major naval powers such as the US and Japan in an attempt to curb China’s regional sovereignty claims.
In 2002 ASEAN and China announced the non-legally binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in which it was agreed that any territorial disputes were to be resolved in a peaceful manner, through amicable talks and negotiations. There were also attempts to reach a legally binding “South China Sea code of conduct” with China, although this was never drafted.
This year it is Cambodia’s turn to be ASEAN chair and things have gone China’s way. In its capacity as host nation, Cambodia decides the agenda of the ASEAN meetings and it has refused to entertain any ideas not in China’s interests. This has also confounded problem-solving efforts by nations like the US and Japan.
The Philippines attempted to curb China’s schemes by raising proposals at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting last month, but these were doomed to failure following Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) visit to Cambodia in March this year.
The US remains wary of China, but the two governments seem to have reached an agreement avoiding direct military conflict as a result of misunderstandings. During the recent “2-Plus-2” foreign and national defense ministerial meeting between the US and the Philippines, the US ruled out acting as a mediator on behalf of the Philippines in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over the Scarborough Shoal issue. The US emphasized that sovereignty conflicts in the South China Sea should be dealt with via peaceful, collaborative, multilateral and diplomatic means and made it crystal clear that it does not support any rash actions by the Philippines on this issue.
Earlier this month the US and China held strategic and economic talks in which the two agreed to avoid tensions over hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. Neither will they tolerate the actions of any of their allies within their spheres of influence affecting relations between them. Thus, China complied with US wishes in condemning North Korea’s recent failed rocket launch, calling it a “serious violation” of UN resolutions, and the US likewise has obliged by remaining on the sidelines of the Scarborough Shoal spat, simply observing, while the Philippines stands up to its powerful neighbor. Clearly, then, the US and China have agreed to restrain rash behavior from their respective allies in the region.
This understanding between the US and China aimed at maintaining security in the Asia-Pacific region has already seriously constricted the options of smaller nations within the region, leaving them with less room for maneuver. It has also weakened the ability of regional organizations, such as ASEAN, that would like to have more control over how these South China Sea sovereignty disputes unfold.