Asean countries will be worse off dealing with China on a bilateral basis, while Beijing may not much like the emergence of a Southeast Asia aligned along US- or China-led groupings.
The dispute in the South China Sea challenges China’s bilateral and multilateral relations in and outside its immediate neighbourhood. However, the first and most important casualty has been the coherence of Asean.
Granted, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is not known for sustaining unity in the face of pressure, and it is hardly a surprise to long-time observers that arguably the most significant organisation of regional integration has failed to reflect on the latest developments in the South China Sea. To wit: the July 24 joint communiqué adopted during the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Laos avoided the obvious elephant in the room: the ruling of The Hague tribunal that delivered a legal blow to Beijing’s South China Sea claims.
Prior to the ruling, Beijing had attempted to discredit the legitimacy of the court. It was more or less clear that the ruling would not be favourable. Thus, China made it equally clear that it would not be pleased to hear a word about the ruling. That The Hague decision is nothing short of a worst-case scenario further encourages Chinese efforts to double down on denying the obvious.
Since July 12, Beijing has had two opportunities to push back. Before this year’s Asean foreign ministers’ meeting, there was the annual Asia-Europe Meeting summit on July 15-16 in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator. Attempts were made to include references to the South China Sea and The Hague ruling but the request was flatly rejected. This was not surprising, considering that the meeting is typically more focused on matters of consensus. But while this is an informal forum for European and Asian countries, Asean has a more ambitious long-term outlook. Thus, its refusal to address the issue is of greater consequence. The fact that both the US and China dispatched their foreign ministers to this year’s Asean meeting testified to its importance.