Asean’s pragmatism is playing into China’s hands


With its economic clout and trade power, Beijing continues to brush aside criticism on south china sea, while other countries in the region look the other way
When Asean leaders gather this weekend in Kuala Lumpur, their agenda will be dominated by the launch of the 10-year roadmap toward the realisation of the Asean Community.

But, apart from regional economic integration, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has other things in mind.

The Asean summit offers him another opportunity to bring up the issue of China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. Hopefully, he will get his colleagues to conclude the protracted discussion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as a concrete achievement in political and security cooperation.

This was an issue he first sharply brought to the Asean table at the 20th Asean summit in 2012 in Phnom Penh.

For the first time in its history, the consensus-oriented regional bloc failed to issue a joint communique at the end of its meeting after the host country decided to take up the cudgels for China.

This was a moment when semantics could not come to the aid of diplomacy.

That Cambodian summit conveyed in no uncertain terms the president’s determination to hold China accountable for its actions under international norms.

His dogged pursuit of the South China Sea issue at that meeting, which he did in the politest terms possible, deviated from the customary practice of issuing muffled official protests while signalling a readiness to settle disputes through bilateral talks.

It was a sharp departure from the policy that had characterised his predecessor’s cosy relationship with China.

Not too long after the Cambodian encounter, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Treating it as provocation, China refused to participate in the arbitral proceedings in The Hague.

While China is within its rights to not submit to the authority of the international tribunal, it is difficult to see how it can stake a unilateral claim on virtually the whole of the South China Sea and expect this claim to be recognised merely on the basis of what it regards as historical rights.

But that is the reason for China’s preference for arguments based on maps and archaeological artefacts – whose authenticity has been repeatedly questioned.

Preposterous as it may seem, this line of reasoning is consistent with the doctrine advanced by China’s legal experts that “a judicial fact must be appreciated in the light of the laws contemporary with it, rather than the laws in force at the time when a dispute arises”. This was cited in Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World”.

China’s recent actions have gone beyond the deployment of patrol boats in a vast sea it claims as its territorial waters.

It has embarked in the last few months in a frenetic reclamation and construction programme aimed at converting partly submerged reefs and shoals into islands of concrete, equipped with aircraft landing strips and naval ports.

This crude operation has entailed digging out large amounts of sand from the seabed and piling it upon live corals in order to create a solid foundation.


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