Despite boasting some of the world's biggest names on its guest list, the star at this year's ASEAN Summit was not a world leader but the Philippines' victory at the Hague in its dispute with Beijing regarding the South China Sea. Leaders from all ten members, China's Premier Li Keqiang and US President Barack Obama (among others) gathered in Vientiane, Laos, this week to talk around, allude to and generally ignore the landmark decision.
Any hopes ASEAN would take a united stand in supporting the Hague ruling were dashed last month after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stated that resolution would be better approached through direct conversations between Manila and Beijing, rather than via the regional bloc. The comments echo Cambodia's stance (believed to have been influenced by China), which saw Phnom Penh sink a joint statement following the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Summit in Vientiane shortly after the ruling in July.
A draft of the joint communique skirted around direct references to the Hague ruling, instead sticking with 'reaffirming' support for international legal processes. By Wednesday, the bloc and China issued the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) which establishes a hotline between ASEAN states and China in renewed efforts to 'improve operational safety of naval ships and naval aircraft in air and at sea'.
The CUES announcement came hours after photos leaked to Philippine media were published, seemingly confirming suspicions China is preparing to build islands along the disputed Scarborough Shoal, thrusting private battles among delegations on to the main stage. 'We have reason to believe that their presence is a precursor to building activities on the shoal. We are continuing our surveillance and monitoring of their presence and activities, which are disturbing,' spokesman for the Philippines' Department of National Defense Arsenio Andolong told AFP.
Andolong would not be coaxed into explaining the timing of the release (in the morning just hours before the China-ASEAN meeting) although AFP confirmed it had been ordered by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was in Vientiane with Duterte. The release appears to have failed in motivating harsher rebukes from fellow ASEAN members, or an explanation from Chinese representatives.
Chinese media outlet Xinhua reported that Li was keen to work with ASEAN in 'dispelling interference' (typically a veiled reference to foreign influences) in the disputes and 'moving towards a positive direction.' While he noted 'peace and stability in the South China Sea is highly related to the prosperity and development of countries in the region', he (unremarkably) made no mention of the Hague.
Obama, meanwhile, was happy to refer directly to the Hague ruling, telling the US-ASEAN meeting on Thursday that he was 'looking forward' to 'constructively moving forward together to lower tensions'.
'I reiterated that the United States will stand with allies and partners in upholding fundamental interests, among them the freedom of navigation and overflight, lawful commerce that is not impeded and peaceful resolution of disputes,' he told media after the meeting. The President's comments reflected a shift among some in the region away from acknowledging the ruling as a priority and towards maintaining security and peace, particularly as incidents between China and Vietnam (also a claimant to the sea) reportedly heat up.
Singapore-based Southeast Asia expert Ian Storey told the Wall Street Journal that all sides are likely 'satisfied' with the result of talks, but 'it's movement in lieu of progress'.
As Duterte officially accepted chairmanship of the bloc for next year on behalf of the Philippines, the divisions among members grow deeper. A focus on the South China Sea and its dramas diverts attention away from less hyped but equally pressing issues, from protecting and expanding human rights to reaching the UN's sustainable development goals.
The South China Sea remains the central issue to ASEAN and to the bloc's relations with other powers, but the region remains dogged by the 'centrality and unity' identity crisis. This will lead to an interesting if blindingly frustrating 50th anniversary next year.
Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency