The results of the 30th ASEAN Summit, held in Manila on April 29, were somewhat disappointing—though not surprising. The chairman’s statement did not come close to addressing the ongoing concerns of reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea, and in fact did not even mention them (in contrast to recent statements in Laos and Malaysia).
The statement also shortchanged the importance of international law. Although the document did mention the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it only raised it in a diluted general context, not in the South China Sea section.
Whereas previous documents emphasized peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes “in accordance with international law,” this year’s statement cited only “universally recognized principles of international law,” sidestepping any impact of the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration Tribunal award.
It is now clear that ASEAN failed to forge a united political front against provocative actions in the South China Sea, and that the ASEAN chairman’s statement withdrew the concerns of earlier years in order to avoid provoking China.