China, politics and foreign policy
Recent news about the failure of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to produce a joint communiqué for the first time in the group’s history has stirred interest in how the region is coping with an important regional security issue.
Piecing together the news, what we get is that the Philippines, supported by other Asean member-states sought to insert in the joint communiqué a paragraph that expresses the region’s concerns over the events regarding Bajo de Masinloc or the Scarborough Shoal.
Cambodia, it seems, bowed to China’s wishes not to have the contentious subject placed in any of the official documents to be issued during the plethora of meetings that happened in Phnom Penh. Yang Jiechi, China's foreign minister, was even supposed to have expressed his gratitude to Cambodia for ensuring that China’s core interests were protected. Despite efforts by other Asean member-states such as Indonesia to ensure that a joint communiqué is released, Cambodia stuck to its decision.
Beyond the Philippines’ loss in its quest for the Asean Ministerial Meeting to mention the Scarborough Shoal in the traditional joint communiqué, is the fact that Asean centrality was diminished.
In the Asean Charter, this centrality was defined as making the association the “primary driving force in its relation and cooperation with its external partners in a regional architecture that is open, transparent and inclusive.”
This centrality means that member-states should act in accordance with the Asean principle that they shall be actively engaged, outward-looking, inclusive and non-discriminatory in their external political, economic, social and cultural relations.
By adopting the Asean Charter, member-states have committed to follow the regional norms that they themselves have developed over time; the failure therefore to proactively resolve an internal Asean matter such as whether the communiqué should contain a reference to the tensions in the Scarborough Shoal speaks of a lack of commitment on the part of member-states to abide by the rules that they themselves have crafted and adopted.
Of course, this is not as simplistic as Asean ganging up on China. What is at stake here is the regional association’s goal to be a real community of nations in 2015. That means member-states should be brave enough to discuss the hard security issues that are cropping up rather than wait for another crisis to happen.
A statement by Asean foreign ministers on the issue is not without precedent. People should remember that regional tensions have been mentioned in one way or another in Asean documents.
During the problems in the Mischief Reef in 1994 to 1995, the Asean Foreign Ministers were still able to issue a statement expressing concern on the issue during their March 1995 meeting. This was repeated in their joint communiqué released in July 1995.
Rise of the nationalists
There are also signs that regional security is being threatened indirectly by China’s internal political dynamics.
It may be that the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea is an issue that has become the victim of two Chinese internal problems: strident nationalism which threatens China’s internal stability, and the fragmented policy process with regard to the West Philippine Sea as documented by the International Crisis Group’s report released last April 2012, which it poetically termed the 9 dragons.
China’s nationalistic elements have risen in importance and their voices are becoming louder. With the coming leadership change, potential successors to the current leaders do not want to be seen as weak. On the other hand, the 9 dragons, which in reality are 11 ministerial level government agencies, compete for control over foreign policy, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry as only one of the players and not even the strongest.
Whatever China’s problems are, Filipino diplomats should also have prepared themselves for this outcome knowing full well that Cambodia has long been in China’s pockets.
The outcome was expected by seasoned Asean observers. Before the meetings, strong diplomatic representations should have been made to all Asean member-states so that the Philippine position is well understood and appreciated.
The government should also reinforce its commitment to Asean community-building by strengthening its Asean National Secretariat so that it can function well in its task as the national coordinator on Asean-related issues. This is not the task of the Department of Foreign Affairs alone. It starts from the recognition by our political leaders that Asean is a cornerstone of our foreign policy and international relations.
In fact, our political leaders should start their soul-searching to see that foreign policy, especially with regard to our regional neighbors is an important aspect of our national life. Therefore, they are expected to exercise leadership at all times not only during crisis situations.
Reaction in the Philippines to foreign policy crisis is comparable to Manny Pacquiao’s boxing matches: everyone is an expert! It causes dismay therefore when politicians spout arrant nonsense about security and foreign relations issues that they have been poorly briefed about.
Local political commentators have also turned out to be foreign policy and Asean experts overnight! Such is the poor state of foreign policy scholarship in the country that every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he has the right answer and prescribes solutions to the current imbroglio even when they do not possess an adequate appreciation of the historical and institutional complexities of Asean and the Southeast Asian region.
Beyond the problems that the Philippines faces as it seeks to ensure that Asean comes to its senses on the issue, Asean member-states have to come to grips with a growing reality: security concerns, whether of the traditional (inter-state) kind or the non-traditional ones, have an impact beyond the territories of any given state.
A potential armed clash in the South China Sea will have an impact not only on the region but also around the world since it would disrupt the heavy flow of trade that necessarily passes through it.
A country that may eventually win the dispute by exerting military might may also weaken the region’s goals to strengthen norms and other international laws that seek to promote order through an accepted legal framework.
It behooves Asean member-states, especially the Chair, to ensure that issues affecting the region should be openly discussed and debated so that member-states can be guided in how to give Asean centrality over sensitive issues.
Asean centrality should therefore be rigorously observed by all member-states precisely because it is their own expression of the region’s primordial importance in regional affairs.
Being part of Asean should translate into concern over fellow member-states’ issues as the regional community-building process continues. The Scarborough Shoal, along with the whole West Philippine Sea, should become an Asean issue as well because they are Southeast Asia’s maritime heartland.
*The author is a foreign affairs research specialist of the Philippines' Foreign Service Institute.
By Julio S Amador III*
17 July 2012