[Amando Doronilla] ASEAN waffles on oil rig row

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 15, 2014 - 20:29
  • Updated : May 16, 2014 - 09:57
Vietnam and the Philippines called on the other member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at their summit in Burma (Myanmar) on Sunday to take stronger action to confront China over its provocative actions in the South China Sea. But their call fell on deaf ears.

Vietnam led the denunciation, accusing China of “brazenly” triggering the confrontation between Vietnamese and Chinese flotillas last week over the installation by Beijing of a giant oil rig at the Paracel Islands in waters claimed by both countries.

In one of the sessions of the summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged fellow Southeast Asian leaders to join Hanoi in protesting China’s move, which he described as a “dangerous” violation of international law and a “serious threat” to security in one of the world’s most important sea lanes.

Nguyen said the planting of the rig in waters within Vietnam’s continental shelf and exclusive zone “gravely violated” the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

China is party to the 2002 nonaggression pact, Nguyen said as he urged ASEAN to include the issue in its joint statement. He called on other countries, and international groups, “to continue voicing protest on the serious acts, and support the legitimate demands of Vietnam.”

Less vehement than Nguyen, President Aquino called attention to Philippine encounters with China in other parts of the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal. He raised as well the lodging by the Philippines of its memorial with the U.N. International Tribunal for The Law of the Sea in The Hague to support its case challenging China’s claim to 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.

The Philippines and Vietnam have taken the brunt of China’s aggressive incursions into disputed territories. Among those with territorial claims disputed by China, they have been two of the most outspoken in assailing the latter’s aggressive actions in the region.

Aquino has told journalists that many ASEAN leaders had expressed concern over the maritime tensions, including one who called the movement of the Chinese oil rig “dangerous brinkmanship.”

But the response of the summit participants to these warnings was muted, indicating that China’s expansionist encroachments have driven deep rifts within ASEAN over how to deal with its moves. Vietnam failed to rally support for its call for a tougher response to aggressive Chinese actions. ASEAN’s ambivalent position relative to China’s incursions was reflected by the joint statement of ASEAN foreign ministers on Saturday.

The Wall Street Journal reported that although the foreign ministers had expressed “serious concerns” over the latest naval confrontation over China’s oil rig, they fell short of directly criticizing Beijing, and merely reiterated calls for restraint and greater urgency in multilateral talks on a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

ASEAN can’t have it both ways, without inviting criticism that it is nothing more than a paper tiger.

According to the WSJ on Sunday, many ASEAN leaders also didn’t blame China when discussing the latest tensions. A joint leaders’ declaration issued on the same day called for “peaceful dialogue in resolving disputes without naming names.” The differences in tone “underscored divisions between ASEAN members who prefer a tougher regional response against Beijing’s territorial claims, and others who are reluctant to antagonize a powerful economic partner,” the report said.

The foreign ministers’ statement “merely reiterates the ASEAN position on the dispute and breaks ground,” according to Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Studies in Singapore, whose commentary was run by WSJ. It represents ASEAN’s “lowest common denominator consensus on the dispute,” given varying bilateral ties between individual bloc members and Beijing.

ASEAN officials, however, were reported to believe that their statement sends a “strong message” on their “commitment to peaceful dialogue.” But what about the commitment of China to peaceful dialogue? The Chinese Foreign Ministry, reports said, played down any disagreement with ASEAN, and accused countries it didn’t name of manipulating the South China Sea dispute to stir up trouble. Beijing previously said its latest operations in the contested areas were routine.

President Susilo Bambang of Indonesia said ASEAN had always employed a rules-based approach to disputes. “They should not use gunboat diplomacy,” he said in a swipe at both Vietnam and China.

Vietnam’s Nguyen disagreed with the Chinese claim that the repositioning of the oil rig was “routine,” and insisted: “This is the first time China unilaterally brings and installs its oil rig deep into the continental shelf and exclusive economic zone of an ASEAN country, which gravely violates the international law (and the ASEAN-China agreement on the South China Sea).”

He told his ASEAN colleagues in one of the public sessions that despite Vietnam’s protests, “China has been continuing to escalate its increasingly dangerous, severe acts of violations.”

By Amando Doronilla

Amando Doronilla is a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. ― Ed.

(Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network)