Big waves in the East Sea

VietNamNet Bridge - After the division in 2012, ASEAN members have allied for common goals. Now the bloc is again challenged by the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) dispute. VietNamNet would like to present an article by Mr. Dimas Muhamad, who works for the Policy Analysis and Development Agency, Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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China builds artificial islands in the East Sea. Photo: CSIS

When we talk about the 2012 ASEAN Summit, some are fixated on ASEAN’s failure to hammer out a unified communiqué for the first time in its history. What they gloss over is the fact that not longer after the summit, with Indonesia’s tenacious shuttle diplomacy, ASEAN Foreign Ministers set aside their differences and adopted a joint statement.

It stipulates that ASEAN Foreign Ministers reaffirm the commitment to six-point principles, the last of which is “the peaceful resolution of disputes [in the East Sea] in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS)” (1).

Again, that unity will be put to the test as the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration will announce the awards of arbitration between the Philippines and China over the East Sea on July 12th.

After the 2012 fissure, ASEAN members rallied together for common cause. Four years later, with the imminent arbitration verdicts, will ASEAN step up to the plate once more?

There are reasons to be skeptical. The regional organization is increasingly seen by some to be fractured over the East Sea dispute. Aside from the infamous 2012 ASEAN Summit, a few weeks ago ASEAN encountered another pandemonium in the ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

At the meeting, the ASEAN Statement on East Sea was abruptly retracted as some members were allegedly pressured by China to shoot it down.

This time around, ASEAN cannot afford more discord. ASEAN must get its act together. Of course it is perfectly normal for ASEAN members to have differences, after all only four members are claimants while the other six have much less skin in the game. However, ASEAN members cannot let their differences overshadow their shared core interest, to maintain peace and stability in the region.

The impending ruling has seismic repercussion for the East Sea dispute. For decades, the claimant states have always had contending views on the legality of their claims vis-à-vis others’.

The arbitration outcome will mark the first time a competent international institution vindicates some of these claims as it invalidates some others. Hence the ruling is bound to ruffle some feathers and will potentially aggravate tension in the already volatile region. Against that backdrop, ASEAN unity is more vital than ever.

If ASEAN’s rupture rears its ugly head, then it will further erode its credibility as a regional body. ASEAN will not be taken seriously, its members particularly the claimants would turn their back on ASEAN and harness other platforms that they deem to be more effective and thus undermine ASEAN centrality.

Major powers will have doubtsabout ASEAN and will be tempted to flex their muscles in the region to secure their own interests. Furthermore, the schism will have its dent on ASEAN’s biggest venture yet so far, the ASEAN Community.

ASEAN’s aspiration to become a community with common vision will only be jeopardized if its members are at loggerheads on one of the biggest challenges the region has ever known.

ASEAN should not be construed as a hostile gesture towards any other country including China. The unity only reflects the determination of ASEAN to act and speak with one voice as it strives to contribute to world peace and stability as a unified community.

It goes without saying that China is a strategic partner of ASEAN, the cooperation with Beijing is undoubtedly important for ASEAN. However, intra-ASEAN partnership and cohesion is even more pivotal.

For instance, in 2015, the value of intra-ASEAN trade is US$545 billion while ASEAN-China trade stands at $346 billion, which means that intra-ASEAN trade is almost $200 billion bigger than the ASEAN-China trade (2).

In ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, slated to take place at the end of this month, ASEAN should adopt a joint statement concerning the result of the arbitration. We must tread cautiously and refrain from forcing a position that will only tear ASEAN further apart.

The PM of Cambodia has openly declared that his country is against arbitration. ASEAN consensus decision making process means that we might need to accept the lowest common denominator. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the arbitration constitutes a lawful measure to settle dispute peacefully in accordance with international law, something that ASEAN endorsed back in 2012 as alluded earlier.

To this end, ASEAN member countries should attempt to forge a joint statement which calls for the international community to respect the results of the arbitration. Should it fail to receive a unanimous backing, then at a very least ASEAN should call for all countries to refrain from actions that will only fan the flame of hostility.

The statement should not preclude any member state to declare individual support for the arbitration outcome.

Instead of being plagued by division, when it comes to the East Sea dispute ASEAN should act in unison. Otherwise, not only regional stability, but ASEAN’s very identity as one community is at stake.

Dimas Muhamad

(The opinion expressed in the article is his own)



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