ASEAN’s annual summits proved once again that the group is little more than a paper house, unable to agree on or do much of anything substantial.
Hosted by Laos, the meetings were full of the usual pomp and photo ops, and even some controversy, but in the one area where the group could make a difference, it caved in the face of lobbying by Beijing.
A statement issued at the end of the members-only summit “took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have ... increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
However, it then just called on “the parties concerned to resolve their disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international laws.”
That is a slight measure of progress, given that the 2012 ASEAN summit in Cambodia ended without any statement at all, for the first time in the group’s then-45-year history. Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong at that time blamed all the members for the failure, but singled out, without naming names, those who had repeatedly insisted on mentioning the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) issue if a communique was to be issued.
However, while the waffling in Vientiane was not unexpected, it was yet another disappointment from the association, which has repeatedly proven itself incapable of protecting the interests of key members.
The group has made maintaining neutrality in the face of big power confrontations a key tenet, yet it is willing to ignore one of its other key tenets: promoting regional peace and stability through respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among nations of the region.
Even the Philippines, which made a request for arbitration with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over China’s activity on and around the shoal, has, since its change of administration in June, backtracked on standing up to Beijing.
After the ASEAN-only meeting was over, members joined representatives of eight world powers, including the US and China, for the East Asia Summit. It was left to a guest at that meeting, US President Barack Obama, to tackle the elephant in the room.
Obama, who acknowledged that by mentioning the court’s ruling in a speech at the meeting and saying that it was binding, was raising tensions. The US would continue to work to ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully, including in the South China Sea.
The result was that the Chinese media had a field day, with an editorial in the Global Times declaring: “China has won in the last round of competition over the South China Sea ... political waves around the South China Sea have been put under control.”
Laos and Cambodia have been acquiescent to China’s demands in recent years, helping tamp down any criticism of Beijing in ASEAN because they have become reliant on loans and aid from Beijing.
Taiwan should offer the two nations a warning: Allowing your nation’s economy to become too reliant on China’s largesse and political ambitions can spell trouble when you try to assert your own sovereignty and place your nation’s needs ahead of Beijing’s.
While ASEAN leaders said that one of the successes of the Vientiane meetings was an agreement with Beijing to establish a hotline to help avoid accidental military clashes in the South China Sea, Taiwan can also tell ASEAN what such an agreement is worth: Not even the paper it is written on.
What is the point of setting up a hotline if Beijing refuses to pick up the telephone — or, as it did with Taipei following the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), announcing that an established communications mechanism has been suspended because Taiwan is not doing what China wants?
Beijing’s bullying — of Taiwan, of its other neighbors — proves the truth of the old adage that with friends like China, who needs enemies?
This editorial has been corrected since it was first published to indicate that the Philippines filed a request for arbitration with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, not an appeal.
China took advantage of the vacuum left behind when US carriers stayed out of the western Pacific Ocean due to COVID-19 outbreaks on several US Navy warships. The Chinese government is solidifying its hold on artificial islands in the South China Sea by moving in missiles and surveillance equipment, and formalizing its occupation by creating two municipal districts in the region under Hainan Island’s Sansha — Xisha District on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) to administer the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Nansha District on Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島) to administer the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) —
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