Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) wrapped up the 32nd summit on April 28 in Singapore, this year’s chairman. After half-a-century of existence, the ASEAN has found itself at a crossroads, as new geopolitical challenges put into question the future of peace and prosperity in Asia.
At the end of the gathering, however, which saw all Southeast Asian leaders in attendance, the ASEAN largely leaned in favor of China, both on key economic as well as geopolitical concerns, specifically on the South China Sea.
In contrast, the regional body adopted a particularly tough language vis-à-vis the rise of trade protectionism in the West, which could severely hurt the export-oriented economies of Asia.
As a leading global trade hub, the city-state of Singapore has advocated the vision of a “rules-based” order in Asia. In unusually strident language, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has expressed his country’s displeasure with America’s de facto declaration of trade war via unilateral imposition of tariffs on key trading partners.
Earlier this month, the Singaporean leader met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, where he underscored their shared concerns in ensuring continued flow of trade, technology, and investments across borders. Crucially, he presented China as a key pillar of the global multilateral system.
In his speech at the Boao Forum in Hainan, China, on April he argued that nations across the world could maintain their “economic dynamism” only if they stay “open and connected to one another.” Much to the delight of his hosts, he praised China’s economic reforms, arguing that the Asian powerhouse is taking “further steps” in bringing about a more open and competitive economy.
From Singapore’s point of view, free trade is a cornerstone of historic peace and stability, which has characterized much of post-World War II order in Asia. Singapore’s strong pro-trade position was reflected in ASEAN’s joint statement, where regional leaders expressed how “deeply concerned” they were “over the rising tide of protectionism and anti-globalization sentiments” across the world.
The regional body expressed its “continued support for the multilateral trading system,” while encouraging “the swift conclusion” of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations, a China-led trade pact involving sixteen nations from across the Asia-Pacific Rim.
The ASEAN also advocated for the “early implementation” of the ASEAN-Hong Kong-China (HKC) Free Trade and Investment Agreements, which was signed last year November under the Philippines’ chairmanship. The Southeast Asian leaders also called for maintenance of the momentum as well as integrity of existing free trade arrangements between the ASEAN and dialogue partners, especially China.
What emerges from the ASEAN’s statement on trade and investment issues is the centrality of China to the health of regional economy as well as the primacy of the threat posed by American trade protectionism.
The recognition of China’s emergence as the economic hegemon in the region, however, has gone hand in hand with strategic acquiescence on the South China Sea issue. For years, Singapore has been a strong advocate of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
In recent years, the city-state has consistently emphasized the importance of managing and resolving disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with UNCLOS.
For some, including Beijing, this was an expression of indirect support for the Philippines’ landmark arbitration award against China in 2016.
The arbitral tribunal ruling nullified, without any equivocation, much of China’s expansive claims in adjacent waters based on a dubious “historic rights” doctrine. To many Southeast Asian states, this was a welcome development, because it legally checked excessive claims by any revisionist power at the expense of the interest of smaller states as well as freedom of navigation and over flight in major sea lines of communications.
Yet Singapore’s ability to push for a stronger language vis-à-vis China’s expanding military footprint in the South China Sea was limited. This was mainly due to the willingness of Southeast Asian claimant states such as the Philippines to opt for a policy of accommodation rather than resistance.
In fact, the Rodrigo Duterte administration hasn’t only downplayed the relevance of the Philippines’ arbitration ruling, refusing to raise it in any multilateral fora, it has also proposed resource-sharing agreements with China in the South China Sea.
Never mind that any joint development scheme with China may violate both the Philippines’ constitution as well as The Hague ruling, which made it clear that the two sides have no overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) to begin with.
In their joint statement, the ASEAN failed to raise direct concerns over China’s massive island-building as well as large-scale deployment of weapons systems to contested land features in the South China Sea.
In particularly meek language, the ASEAN only “discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea” by simply taking “note of the concerns expressed by some Leaders on the land reclamations” in the area, without even mentioning China.
To Beijing’s delight, the ASEAN even praised China for the conclusion of the hot lines among claimant states’ foreign ministries as well as the operationalization of the Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).
The regional body was “encouraged by the official commencement of the substantive negotiations” towards the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. Yet there were no details as to the timeline of negotiations or whether the proposed CoC would be legally binding, based on the UNCLOS, and relevant to the resolution of the disputes at all.
Despite Singapore’s best efforts, ASEAN seems to continue its downward slide into strategic accommodation vis-à-vis China, while desperately holding onto the global free trade regime, which has enriched much of the region but is now under assault by America.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a non-resident fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute.