History neither repeated nor reversed itself at the ASEAN Summit last weekend when it came to the South China Sea disputes. Three preliminary judgments can be made with an eye for ASEAN's future centrality in relation to this issue.
1. ASEAN and its host state clearly learned from its historic 2012 failure, due to internal divisions over the South China Sea, to issue a joint communique. Even before all the leaders had arrived in Myanmar's capital for the Summit's opening dinner, ASEAN foreign ministers released a joint statement expressing 'serious concerns over the ongoing developments' in the South China Sea. As Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Shanmugan noted, not issuing such a statement 'would have further dented ASEAN credibility'.
ASEAN as an institution and Myanmar as a host evaded the worst outcome. In fact, for Myanmar, the intense focus on the South China Sea disputes may even have reduced the Summit media horde's interest in more sensitive domestic issues like the treatment of the Rohingya.
2. The divisions within ASEAN over approaches to the territorial disputes between half of its members (including the three most populous) and China in the South China Sea mean ASEAN is increasingly sidelined when it comes to this core interest for the region. The joint statement places its hope in all parties respecting international law and the glacial negotiations between China and ASEAN on a Code of Conduct. Departing Indonesian President Yudhoyono, attending his last Summit, offered the nascent and amorphous ASEAN Political Security Community as a wider regional dispute-settlement mechanism. Even the largely boilerplate ASEAN statement was achieved only after the foreign ministers' meeting was extended by an hour and it was agreed that no specific country or 'ongoing development' be mentioned.
For the Vietnamese Government, with large anti-China protests flaring and China's largest offshore oil rig in waters it sees as Vietnamese, this will not be reassuring. Same for the Philippines, which saw the Chinese gain de facto control of Scarborough Shoal after, according to the Philippine interpretation, welching on an American-mediated agreement for both sides to withdraw. For Hanoi and Manila, Chinese 'facts on the ground' are real, and hopes for a Code of Conduct that China will agree to and abide by are not.
If ASEAN had wanted to stay relevant to these concerns, it could have: (a) noted that China's recent actions are not consistent with the 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea; (b) given ASEAN's stamp of approval to the Philippine case against China over this maritime dispute in the South China Sea as a way of bringing international law to bear and/or (c) provided public support to the draft Code of Conduct that has circulated within the confines of ASEAN for months. No such proactive steps, which certainly would have triggered a Chinese verbal barrage, were taken.
3. At the same time that President Aquino and Foreign Secretary Del Rosario were not being reassured in Myanmar, they were getting reassurance elsewhere. Philippine and American troops (along with 100 Australian participants this time around) were in the middle of the 30th annual Balikatan ('shoulder-to-shoulder') exercises, practicing the amphibious defence and recapture of remote offshore islands. Furthermore, both Japan and the US have officially singled out the danger of Chinese actions in the South China Sea, noting that they are part of a consistent and destabilising set of actions by China in its maritime disputes in East Asia more widely, and have repeatedly endorsed the Philippines' decision to take its dispute with China to an international legal tribunal. Reassurance sought and gained.
ASEAN was created to help individual Southeast Asian states manage relations with major extra-regional powers and to reduce the influence of major powers in Southeast Asia through united action. The 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea has been held up as an exemplar of this approach. But since these heady days, ASEAN has been increasingly unable to live up to dual purpose when it comes to the South China Sea. The ASEAN Summit in Myanmar did nothing to alter this trend.