The ASEAN member nations are unwilling to issue a joint statement regarding the recent ruling of an international tribunal that stated there is no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the South china Sea area that falls within its so-called nine-dash line. Although the Philippines (which had filed for international arbitration at the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration) requested ASEAN to respond to the tribunal's ruling, Cambodia has managed to block this move.
On Monday (25/07), at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Laos (where the foreign ministers of ASEAN members met for the first time since the tribunal's ruling on 12 July 2016) there was no direct criticism on China's claims in the South China Sea, even though Chinese fishermen and army units have been undermining the territorial sovereignty of several of ASEAN's member nations, while such criticism can now be backed by the international ruling in early July.
However, prior to the ruling of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), China had already issued a statement in which it expressed to ignore any ruling as China does not recognize the tribunal. Instead, China proposes to overcome rising tensions in the South China Sea region and to maintain peace and stability through an ASEAN-China dialogue.
Several ASEAN member nations, including Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, had - independently - already expressed criticism toward China's territorial claims over the majority (some 80 percent) of the South China Sea. However, Laos and Cambodia prefer to side with their giant neighbor. Given that the 10-member ASEAN group only issues joint statements on matters that all members agree upon, the lack of a joint statement on the South China Sea ruling is a clear sign that the group is divided on the matter. Cambodia, an ally of China as it receives generous aid packages and loans from the world's second-largest economy, is considered the main obstacle to the issuance of a joint statement that criticizes China's territorial claims.
The statement that ASEAN issued after the meeting on Monday (25/07) mentioned that the group is concerned about recent developments in the South China Sea region. However, it failed to mention China directly. Instead ASEAN and China reaffirmed their commitment to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea through the framework of the declaration of Conduct of Parties (DOC). The DOC, adopted several years ago, is in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, China's nine dash line map is not consistent with the definition of sovereignty over territorial waters as set in the UNCLOS. As such, China is expected to continue its military and fishery activities in the South China Sea area even if it undermines ASEAN nations' sovereignty.
ASEAN member countries are facing a dilemma: safeguard good relations with China or take a tough stance on its claims in the South China Sea and therefore jeopardize diplomatic and economic relations with the giant economy (China is a major trading partner as well as big source of foreign investment in several of the ASEAN member nations).
The South China Sea is a lucrative area that contains ample oil, gas and fishery resources, while it also facilitates approximately USD $5 trillion worth of trade each year (hence being one of the world's key seaborne trade routes). China has been gradually expanding its power in the South China Sea in terms of military operations and fishing activities, moves that have led to a series of incidents related to territorial disputes in the area between China and several of the ASEAN members as well as Japan.
Do you agree with the tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines?
Voting possible: -
- Yes, China's territorial claims in the South China Sea are wrong (86.3%)
- I don't know (8.2%)
- No, China's nine-dash line is correct (5.5%)
Total amount of votes: 73