ASEAN as UNCLOS Collateral Damage
by Peter Lee - China Matters
August 98, 2016
Things fall apart. Especially with a helping push from the United States. The world’s easier for America to manage if it’s broken into smaller, weaker, and more vulnerable and manageable pieces. That, I think, is one of the lessons of the post Cold War era.
The USSR fell apart. Yugoslavia fell apart. So did Sudan. Iraq and Syria are both deemed partition-worthy. The dissolution of Pakistan is now a serious topic for hardliners. So is the disintegration of the People’s Republic of China.
So it’s not a big surprise that, after less than a decade of deep US engagement, (the first US Ambassador to ASEAN was designated in 2008), the ASEAN bloc is looking rather shaky.
That’s the context for my most recent piece for Asia Times, Does TPP Matter? Does Singapore Matter?
It takes as its point of departure Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong and President Obama’s joint unwillingness (apparently abetted by a cooperative press corps) not to acknowledge the elephant in the East Asian parlor-- the UNCLOS arbitration decision against China--and instead focus their remarks on the relatively boring issue of the TPP.
Fact is, I think Singapore’s hopes of using TPP as an integration mechanism that boosted the “centrality” of ASEAN and the role of Singapore as indispensable honest broker are collateral damage of the US push to impose the rules of the international liberal order on the East Asian region.
The Philippines, with the discreet encouragement of the United States, provided a big shove to the ASEAN structure by taking its dispute with the PRC over maritime rights in the South China Sea to UNCLOS and an arbitration commission.
The diplomatic environment in East Asia has, shall we say, gracefully degraded from multi-lateralism (ASEAN) to bilateralism (the pre-2011 Philippine-PRC approach) to unilateralism (the Philippines taking their case to UNCLOS & the PRC refusing to participate).
With the local regime for diplomatic integration in ruins, the coast is clear for the US to declare a security vacuum and fill it with a coalition of the willing centered on the United States, Japan, and Australia.
In this context, support of TPP no longer looks like a gambit to affirm the centrality of ASEAN, and more like the giveaway to multinationals its critics claim it is.
The conventional narrative, of course, is that ASEAN couldn’t satisfy the Philippines, and it had to go elsewhere to slake its lust for justice.
Not quite true. As the leaked memorandum of the Philippines’ back channel envoy to China, Antonio Trillanes, indicates, the Philippines’ move to arbitration was a rejection of bilateral talks with China, not a reaction to ASEAN dysfunction.
The PRC and Philippines were deep in bilateral talks on the Scarborough Shoal issue and the PRC had put the Philippines on notice not to internationalize the issue at ASEAN. The Philippine team under foreign minister Alberto del Rosario decided to blow up the PRC talks—and abandon Scarborough Shoal, the purported focus of Philippine concerns—by taking the matter to ASEAN.
According to Trillanes, he recommended in an executive Cabinet meeting on July 5 that Aquino adopt a bilateral approach to resolving the territorial dispute with China, especially that over the Scarborough Shoal.
…Trillanes told Aquino that the Chinese made the commitment to pull out the remaining three CMS vessels if the Philippines does not internationalize it by raising the issue to the Asean Regional Forum scheduled for July 12. The Chinese, he said, also assured him that they would not put up any structure around the shoal.
Del Rosario, however, pushed for internationalizing the dispute. Trilllanes narrated:
“I clearly remember … Henry Bensurto with a PowerPoint presentation telling everybody in the meeting that the annexation of Scarborough Shoal by China would be used as a springboard to claim Western Luzon. Sec. del Rosario proceeded to present that China had almost 100 vessels in and around the shoal…
According to Trillanes, there were actually only three Chinese vessels in the shoal.
Del Rosario carried the day with his rather dubious case with the background support, I’m guessing, of Aquino.
So del Rosario knew that if he raised the issue at ASEAN a) the PRC would block it and b) the bilateral talks would collapse. For maximum rancor, Del Rosario invoked the appeasement of Hitler analogy, and the Philippines washed its hands of both ASEAN and bilateral talks and filed its case under UNCLOS.
Ironically, the one thing UNCLOS won’t do is remove the PRC from Scarborough Shoal, the purported dagger at the heart of Luzon, the intolerable threat less than 200 miles from the Philippines, and the supposed inspiration for ditching ASEAN and going the UNCLOS route.
It’s an above-high-tide-elevation out of UNCLOS jurisdiction, the PRC occupies it, is staying there and, if they really want to get d*ckish about it, the PRC can islandbuild it into a ginormous airbase and UNCLOS and the Philippines can’t say boo.
Victory, unironically, I think for the United States, which wanted to see the terms of engagement with the PRC switch from the economic track—on which the PRC enjoys an advantage—to the military/security track (USA! USA!).