Sat, Jul 23, 2016 - Page 6 News List

Beijing antics upset ASEAN consensus

PROGRESS IN DOUBT:De La Salle University’s Richard Javad Heydarian said that the region suffers from ‘institutional paralysis,’ with China buying smaller members’ loyalty

AFP, VIENTIANE

Southeast Asian nations are in unparalleled disarray over Beijing’s saber rattling in the South China Sea, analysts and insiders said, with the fractures expected to deepen as staunch China ally Laos hosts top regional diplomats this weekend.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) are among the delegates due to fly in from tomorrow for two days of meetings in Vientiane, the capital of the communist nation.

The South China Sea is set to cast a long shadow over the summit, which is hosted by the 10-member ASEAN.

Earlier this month a UN-backed tribunal ruled that there was no legal basis for China’s claims to most of the strategic and resource-rich seas — a ruling rejected as “waste paper” by Beijing.

ASEAN prides itself on consensus diplomacy, but divisions have never been starker, with Beijing blamed for driving a wedge between members.

The Philippines brought the international arbitration case, while fellow ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims to parts of the sea.

Taiwan also claims islands and other features in the region, including Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), the largest feature of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), which the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling says is a “rock.”

Cambodia and hosts Laos are Beijing loyalists, with both impoverished nations weaned on Chinese aid and investment.

After The Hague ruling, Beijing announced more than half a billion dollars in soft loans for Cambodia.

“China has succeeded in splitting ASEAN on the South China Sea issue through its allies Laos and Cambodia,” an ASEAN diplomat told reporters, requesting anonymity.

The bloc’s inability to remain united “will surely weaken ASEAN, not just on the South China Sea problem, but as a regional grouping,” the diplomat said.

ASEAN initially touted itself as the best forum for China to negotiate with rival claimants over the sea, given that so many are members.

Beijing has resisted that approach, insisting that territorial disputes must be settled bilaterally.

As a result, Beijing has successfully moved to divide the bloc. Chinese pressure was blamed last month for an embarrassing U-turn by the regional bloc as members suddenly disowned an apparent joint statement released by Malaysia that condemned Beijing’s aggression in the seas.

That has led to fears of a repeat of a 2012 summit in Cambodia where the bloc failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its history because of disagreements over the waters.

Diplomats are already in Vientiane trying to hash out a response to this month’s tribunal ruling before the foreign ministers arrive.

Insiders say consensus is a long way off.

Critics have long derided ASEAN as an ineffective talking shop and in the face of the region’s most pressing security issue, while some analysts believe the bloc is struggling for relevance.

“ASEAN suffers from inherent institutional paralysis,” Richard Javad Heydarian, a regional expert at De La Salle University in Manila, told reporters.

“There is this sense of frustration among core ASEAN countries that China is essentially buying the loyalty of smaller ASEAN countries,” Heydarian said.

China claims nearly all of the strategic sea — home to some of the world’s most important shipping routes — and has steadily bolstered its toehold by converting reefs and sandbars into islands.

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