Invest in Asean, understand a misaligned China

Ernest Bower
The Philippines should have a clear-eyed view of China’s perspective. A divided Asean is in Beijing’s interests.

Filipinos may understandably feel frustrated with Asean after the regional grouping apparently failed to deliver much-needed support for recognizing Chinese assertiveness at Scarborough Shoal. However, a more sophisticated look will reveal that the Philippines shouldn’t give up on Asean. It should redouble efforts to support its foundation regional grouping.  At the same time, it should have a clear-eyed view of China’s perspective – a divided Asean is in Beijing’s interests.

For the first time in its 45-year history, Asean’s foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué following their consultations last week in Phnom Penh. It is important to understand the high-profile failure.  

What happened and what does it mean for Asean and for the Philippines?

Asean foreign ministers spent hours reviewing a substantive agenda which by all accounts represented the growing maturity of Asean and its relevance not only to its 10-member countries but to its dialogue partners from around the world.

Ministers talked about a broad array of issues ranging from economic cooperation and integration to political and security alignment to social and cultural cooperation. Even the politically sensitive issues such as disputes in the South China Sea were fully discussed.

Problems arose when it was time to agree on the draft of the joint communiqué, which the Cambodian chair deputy prime minister and foreign minister Hor Nam Hong had delegated to a committee comprised Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. 

The Philippines asserted its view that the communiqué should accurately reflect the fact that the ministers discussed the confrontation between the Philippines and China at Scarborough Shoal and Vietnam’s desire to address exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

This was included in the draft submitted to the chairman. Repeatedly, however, Hor Nam Hong took the draft under consideration, consulted with advisers outside of the meeting room, and came back categorically rejecting language referring to Scarborough and EEZ’s. Cambodia’s view, said Hor Nam Hong, was that these issues were bilateral issues and could therefore not be mentioned in the joint statement.  

Reports substantiated by those present indicate that a rather obvious and clumsy leaking effort revealed that Cambodian officials shared drafts of the proposed joint statement with Chinese interlocutors. These leaks, some suggest, were from Chinese sources.  

Manipulated by China

In the end, Asean announced that no joint communiqué would be issued. This was a spectacular and high-profile failure for the regional grouping and an outcome that at the surface seemed not to be in any nation’s interest. 

Superficial analyses pointed to the weakness of Asean cohesion, conflict between the chair, Cambodia and the Philippines, and a possible political divide separating mainland and maritime Southeast Asia.  

A deeper look reveals the trends beneath the surface.  

Fundamentally, the chaos at the Asean meeting was an outcome cynically manipulated and abetted by a China that has decided that a weak and divided Asean is in its national interests.  

Understanding the fact that China has decided to undermine Asean unity and the fact that Asean has the capacity and commitment to overcome this shortsighted campaign to break its ranks is a necessary condition for advising policy-makers in Manila to avoid the trap of underinvesting in Asean. They should continue joining countries that push to advance regional structures that will promote peace, security and prosperity in the Asia Pacific to strengthen Asean.

Leading up to the Asean meetings, China pushed hard on most of the Asean countries, particularly the Cambodians, to keep the South China Sea off the Asean Regional Forum agenda. China had repeatedly indicated that it did not want issues related to the South China Sea discussed in multilateral forums.

Beijing prefers to deal with such issues bilaterally.

However, Asean recognizes that is must work together on such issues as well as to advance its economic integration to effectively compete with regional giants such as China and India in the coming decades. Asean and nearly all other members in the East Asia Summit recognized the importance of an increasingly unified and confident ASEAN as the foundation of new regional architecture advancing security, political and economic dialogue, alignment and therefore peace and prosperity.

In Phnom Penh, China clearly used its growing economic power to coerce Cambodia into the awkward position of standing up to its Asean brethren on a foundational point – that mentioning discussions related to the South China Sea, an issue that is one of the most important security concerns for the grouping and its members, should be kept out of the joint statement. 

China’s overt role, underlined by leak over Cambodia’s complicity in sharing drafts, showed China’s hand in promoting the script of Asean disunity and chaos.  

Redouble efforts

The most important message coming from Phnom Penh is not the intramural Asean spat over language in the joint statement; it is the fact that China has decided that a weak and splintered Asean is in its own interests.

Looking ahead, Asean must take a clear-eyed view of the message that China sent in Phnom Penh and redouble its efforts to stay the course its leaders laid out in the Asean Charter – namely to strive for political, economic and social integration by 2015. 

The Philippines should work with countries interested in a strong and mature Asean to ensure regional organizations have the institutional confidence to resist efforts to cynically undermine regional cooperation to advance their own sovereign and commercial interests.   

Filipinos should know what happened in Phnom Penh and understand that the message from Cambodia is not “Asean is messy and we should proceed carefully and reduce our engagement and investment,” but rather “Asean unity is not supported by China and this is an indication we need to redouble our efforts to engage and support Asean’s goals for unity.” –

(The author is Senior Adviser and Director, Southeast Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, DC.)