A US-ASEAN South China Sea Failure at Sunnylands?


An assessment of how the issue was dealt with at the summit needs to take into account limitations and realities.

Following the end of the historic U.S.-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands, a number of accounts have criticized Washington and Southeast Asian states for their weak stance on the South China Sea issue. In particular, much has been made of the fact that the U.S.-ASEAN joint statement issued after the summit did not contain a specific reference to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

This is hardly the first time an ASEAN-related meeting has been criticized for this, and it will not be the last. And to be sure, getting ASEAN to be more forward-leaning on the South China Sea is a frustrating process well-known to U.S. and Southeast Asian diplomats. But to those who have been following the summit’s planning and execution closely, the suggestion that the United States and ASEAN have somehow failed on the South China Sea issue at Sunnylands is seriously misguided. It reflects an ignorance of how ASEAN and the United States deal with the South China Sea issue, what both sides expected going into Sunnylands, what was eventually achieved, and how the outcome fits in with other ongoing developments.

First, the extent of agreement on the South China Sea question ought to be judged on the basis of what ASEAN is rather than what it ought to be, since that is the reality that policymakers have to contend with. For various reasons, including the fact that ASEAN operates on the basis of consensus and only four of the ten members have claims in the South China Sea disputes, the organization has generally tended to adopt a lowest common denominator approach to the issue. With such a diversity of views – from the Philippines, a claimant which filed a case against China at an international tribunal, to Cambodia, a not-so-interested party and close Chinese partner which infamously blocked the issuance of a joint communique over mention of the South China Sea issue – ASEAN’s statements as a bloc have not traditionally singled out China directly irrespective of Beijing’s actions, and it is rather unrealistic to expect that to change anytime soon (See: “Does ASEAN Have a South China Sea Position?”).