ASEAN undermined by China’s maneuver to break it up
The ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Vientiane of Laos issued a joint statement.
The statement, however, did not mention the ruling handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague which declared China’s claims to the contested South China Sea invalid. This is the result of China’s successful maneuver to break up the ASEAN solidarity.
No reference to Court of Arbitration ruling
The Philippines and Vietnam suggested to include a section to welcome the Court of Arbitration ruling in the statement, but pro-China countries of Cambodia and Laos resisted. Especially, Cambodia which is close to China strongly to this request. It took three days to adopt the statement which was unusual.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized during the Japan-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that “a peaceful resolution based on international laws should be pursued” to settle the South China Sea dispute. He stated that the Court ruling is “legally binding on the parties to the dispute” and China should comply with it. Some member countries of the ASEAN expressed their position to “support the ruling.”
However, China’s desperate diplomatic maneuver toward each member country was already underway. As soon as China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived there, he energetically held talks with foreign ministers of pro-China and neutral countries and conducted behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Foreign Minister Kishida met Foreign Minister Wang and demanded that China comply with the ruling of the Court of Arbitration. In response, Mr. Wang reiterated his position to reject the ruling, saying “the dispute should be resolved among the parties themselves.”
The joint statement only expressed a “deep concern” over what is going on in the South China Sea as the result of China’s diplomatic maneuver. ASEAN’s limitation became apparent.
China’s intention to dismiss the Court ruling as a thing of the past is clear. China does not follow international rules, flexes its power and interest, and tries to guide things in a convenient direction. In a way, this is more blatant and cunning attempt to change the status quo by force than Russia which annexed the Crimea in southern Ukraine by force.
Cambodia which strongly supported China in the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting has been pro-China. The country is expected to receive grant assistance in the amount of about 57 billion yen from China for three years. In the context of the Belt and Road initiative which China is promoting, other countries are strengthening ties with China through Chinese assistance in infrastructure improvements and others.
By using its economic power as a weapon, China is close to successfully gaining the ASEAN’s acquiescence to China’s selfish behaviors to ignore international rules. Countries in the free world including Japan should take this seriously as a warning for the future.
The situation in the South China Sea and China’s attitude toward the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration imply that once China gains world-wide military and economic hegemony it may engage in any kind of unlawful activities in violation of international laws.
Japan cannot remain uninterested in the South China Sea problem. It is closely related to issues of protection of sea lanes of communication and the Senkaku Islands of Okinawa Prefecture, which are Japan’s own territory. The problem may undermine the military balance in Asia Pacific region between the United States and China.
Prevention of unlawful activities in the South China Sea
In close collaboration with the United States and Australia, Japan has to appeal to the international opinion and deter China from ignoring the Court ruling and promoting militarization of the South China Sea.