The U.S. and Asia have just been through two busy weeks of diplomacy. The annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) wrapped up in Kuala Lumpur last week just as Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kicked off a weeklong stay in the U.S. Against the backdrop of Chinese military expansion and Beijing’s launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in the face of U.S. opposition, this summitry came at a crucial time.
Before the Asean summit, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said he would push for a joint statement denouncing China’s menacing island-building in the South China Sea. He didn’t get it. Asean members agreed that “We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability”—but this careful language didn’t condemn or even name China. It didn’t suggest any united front among Asean’s 10 member states.
The Asean statement called on all parties to adhere to the nonbinding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and Asean in 2002. Such adherence would be nice, but it’s been years since Beijing even feigned compliance. Repeated calls by Asean that it be respected only prove the declaration’s futility while demonstrating Asean’s inability to coalesce around alternative approaches to the challenge. Especially for an institution that operates based on consensus, Asean’s growing disunity—intentionally sown by China through economic coercion and other means—is a problem.
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