China’s divisive role in the East Asia Forum



The recently concluded East Asia Forum (EAF) has highlighted the contentious role of a growing China in regional affairs. For an event that was intended primarily to lay the foundation for a huge Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the EAF has been at least as notable for a profound, perhaps fatal, rift in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The proposed East Asia Free Trade Area (FTA), including around a third of the world’s global economy, is intended to capitalise on this region’s current and projected economic strength. While there are many thorny details to be resolved, not least trade advantages flowing from China’s artificially low currency, there is a general sense that the FTA process will continue to be developed.

More critically, though, and which overshadowed the broad thrust towards a FTA, was the South China Sea dispute. China’s assertive, perhaps belligerent, posturing in the South China Sea has long been a sore point with regional neighbours.

The South China Sea contains significant oil and gas deposits, extensive fisheries and implies a vast territorial reach across some of the world’s most used sea lanes. China’s preferred model for dealing with the issue is through bilateral discussions.

In practice, this means China’s has asserted a claim and backed it up by deploying surveillance ships and outposts on some of the atolls and islets that dot the region. Such ‘discussion’ is, then, very one sided.

As the dispute centres on a region claimed by four of the nine ASEAN states – the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam – they view it as an ASEAN issue. China, however, has made very clear that it does not want the issue to be ‘internationalised’.

‘Internationalising’ the South China Sea dispute means, in the first instance, that it becomes an issue to be addressed by ASEAN as a whole. Following from this would be an appeal based on Law of the Sea to international forums. The territorial aspects of Law of the Sea are clear about how to define territorial reach and, under this law, China’s forthright claims to the South China Sea would be regarded as, at best, fanciful.

To stymy this prospect, China’s proxies in ASEAN have thwarted this ‘internationalisation’. At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Phnom Penh in July, Cambodia vetoed the issuing of a communique, given it would have included the South Chian Sea issue.

Cambodia is close trading partner with China, receives considerable aid and is diplomatically aligned. Laos, too, is close to China, with Thailand and Myanmar taking somewhat more nuanced, but distinctly non-confrontational, approaches to China’s claims.

On the other side, the Philippines is the key protagonist in favour of ‘internationalisation’, supported by Vietnam. Malaysia and Brunei also favour an internationally brokered resolution to the dispute.

Cambodia’s assertion on Tuesday that the ASEAN states had agreed not to internationalise the issue was bluntly rebuffed by the Philippines’ President Aquino. He said that there was no ASEAN consensus on the issue and that the Philippines’ claim was one of national sovereignty. The Philippines and China had engaged in a tense stand-off in the South China Sea earlier in the year.

While all countries represented at the EAF want a Free Trade Agreement, they also recognise that ASEAN’s unity is central to it. The question is, with China asserting its regional claims via ASEAN proxy states, whether China sees the FTA as more important than its claims to the South China Sea.

ASEAN was invented during, and in response to, the Cold War, and its expansion followed the Cold War’s conclusion. Times have since changed, with China assuming a major place on the global economic and, increasingly, strategic stage. Having previously reflected a changing external environment, it may be that ASEAN is again being shaped by external changes.

ASEAN’s divisions over loyalties to and contest with China may come to challenge the organisation’s future. It may also, thereby, end current prospects for an FTA.