The Philippines to be undeterred at ASEAN summit

by Chris Zappone

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The Philippines, currently grappling with China in a dispute over territory in the South China Sea, will push for a code of conduct on maritime disputes at the next Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Brunei from April 22-25. Good luck, Philippines. The last ASEAN meeting in Cambodia in July 2012 ended without the association producing a comunique for the first time in its 45-year history. The reason? Deep splits among member nations over China.

Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez said that ASEAN senior officials and ministers, “were able to come up with and agreed upon the elements of the Code of Conduct that would be shown and discussed with the Chinese.”

“But, as you all know, the Chinese side has said that they will only discuss this with ASEAN when the time is ripe. And we are hoping that the time is ripe is now for such discussion because this actually would be very good and this would be good for the region, and this will put peace and stability and freedom of navigation in the area that we are talking about,” he added.

Four countries, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Vietnam have active disputes with China over territorial issues. The Philippines has since taken their dispute over the Scarborough Shoal (pictured above) in the West Philippine Sea to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which the Chinese dismissed. China claims the whole South China Sea as part of its territory.

As the Diplomat noted before the debacle of the last meeting…

There’s no doubt that ASEAN is split on the issue of China and territorial disputes. What is less clear is whether ASEAN’s disunity is simply playing into China’s hands, allowing it to deal with each country individually, or whether Beijing is actively driving a wedge between ASEAN members that oppose China and those that are more sympathetic to the Chinese position.

“Beijing has consistently pursued a strategy to prevent the South China Sea issue [becoming] one between China and ASEAN,” suggests Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University. “It has argued that the any conflict is bilateral. To this end, Beijing has succeeded by using a few Southeast Asian countries to prevent the emergence of a united ASEAN agenda or strategy.”

I wouldn’t get my hopes up for this meeting. But it will be interesting to see if the language changes among members. Possibly after the Japan-Taiwan deal on the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, Beijing will grow more alert to the risk of further deal-making among its regional competitors. We’ll see. But you have give the Philippines credit for not rolling over to China.