Vietnam is angry that China moved an oil rig, along with dozens of ships to protect the rig, into its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and near the Paracel Islands, which it claims. China has even gone so far as to ram Vietnamese vessels in the area as well as to use water cannons against them. These actions by China triggered significant protests by Vietnamese citizens, some of whom also trashed Chinese-owned shops. Meantime, China is upset that the Philippines has arrested Chinese fisherman for poaching sea turtles in the Sea.In light of these incidents, this recent ASEAN summit has been compared to the summit that took place in the summer of 2012, when China and the Philippines were engaged in a brouhaha over the Scarborough Shoal, which China eventually seized. Back then, in 2012, the Sino-Philippine dispute basically paralyzed, even fractured, the summit, to the point that the participants couldn’t even agree to a final communique—something that had never happened to that point in ASEAN's history. The major stumbling block was that some members wanted the statement to address the Scarborough Shoal fiasco, while others—notably, Cambodia—refused the idea. A post-hoc 6-point plan was finally drafted and agreed to—with a major assist from Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegwa—so as to save some organizational face.
By contrast, the 2014 summit, and especially the final statement, was championed, in some quarters, as an improvement over what happened in 2012. The Myanmar Times described the final statement as a show of unity. Bill Hayton wrote that "ASEAN took an exceptional stance." According to Carl Thayer, “The statement by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers was issued as a standalone document and not buried in the longer summary of proceedings. This is significant…. It highlights ASEAN unity on the fact that ongoing developments in the South China Sea are a source of serious concern because they have raised tensions. Even Foreign Minister Marty declared that, "in this case, Asean's state of mind, in terms of rallying around Vietnam in this situation, was instant and immediate."
Yes, in the final statement, ASEAN members did mention the tensions in the South China Sea, expressing "serious concern" at the events there and encouraging all parties to "exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area, and to resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force."
Perhaps this statement is a relative step forward, though it's hardly enough to be useful. Joshua Kurlantzick sums it up best: "At the summit, ASEAN countries more favorably inclined to China and not involved in the Sea, including Cambodia, pressed to make sure that any statement on the South China Sea remained as weak as all the prior statements ASEAN has released."
As evidence, China—widely perceived as the troublemaker in both incidents—was not explicitly mentioned. The statement doesn’t place any blame on China. It doesn’t broach the idea of repercussions in response to further flagrant behavior by any party. It fails to state how ASEAN might go about diffusing tensions in the South China Sea. The only thing the statement did was demonstrate that the organization could temporarily muffle in-fighting enough to take a milquetoast position on a national security of importance to two of its members. Quite frankly, I’m not impressed.
At this point it should be fairly clear that ASEAN's relations with China put the future viability of the organization in serious question. There are two major problems. First, too many ASEAN countries don’t want to anger China, for fear of jeopardizing commercial relations with the economically powerful and attractive Red Panda. Second, several ASEAN members, like Myanmar and Cambodia, have close ties with China and are more than willing to do Beijing’s bidding.
The implications of a reluctant, non-confrontational, divided and passive ASEAN are fairly straightforward. Such behavior gives China carte blanche to wage aggression in the region’s seas. ASEAN risks being bullied and pushed aside by China. Sensing weakness and disunity, there’s a good chance that China might even aim to permanently divide and fracture the organization on China-centric issues. After all, China has already invested considerable time and effort in dividing ASEAN members as a way to protect and further its interests. Should any or all of things happen, ASEAN's prestige and its perceived level of importance will markedly decline. In that case, it will be viewed as an interesting talking workshop and a nascent economic community, but nothing more than that—in short, a low-budget EU, an organization which is far less influential than the collective might of its members would indicate.
We might also see a broader, more lasting consequence emerge from the way ASEAN currently does business. Specifically, if ASEAN doesn’t quickly step out of its shell, it will, in effect, box itself in long-term, limiting its presence and influence in Southeast Asia and throughout Asia. Passive, reactive behavior could easily lead ASEAN down the path of becoming irrelevant on regional security issues, even on issues not involving China. Passive, reactive positions and statements become self-reinforcing over time. They become a pattern of behavior, entrenched. Officials get used to taking weak stances, issuing tepid statements. This becomes the norm, and it’s difficult to break out of this narrow box of thinking and acting.
My hope is that we're not already at this point. Because if we are, then it's difficult to envision how ASEAN could ever be a productive organization on security and defense issues.