The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) concluded its annual summit held this year in Bangkok with little to no progress made on the region’s simmering territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

With US President Donald Trump a no-show and open disgruntlement among ASEAN leaders at the US’s low-ranking delegation, headlines from the just concluded event were dominated instead by US and ASEAN officials trading barbs over who snubbed whom.

At the same time, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang quietly advanced Beijing’s interests in the neighboring region, including through new infrastructure-related and other agreements reached with allies Cambodia and Laos.

Meanwhile, there was no intra-grouping discussion of more pressing South China Sea issues, including reports that China has secured 30-year privileged access to a naval base in Cambodia that, if true, could shift the sea’s strategic calculus by giving Beijing access to a new southern flank vis-à-vis the US.

The US, represented by Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien, was visibly isolated during the Bangkok summit. A majority of ASEAN states, including key American allies and partners, blatantly skipped the annual ASEAN-US summit.

That meant ASEAN leaders mostly missed O’Brien’s prepared remarks on the US’s commitment to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, in which he swiped at Beijing’s “intimidation” of smaller ASEAN states to explore for and exploit energy resources in the area.

US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien during the 7th ASEAN-US Summit in Bangkok on November 4, 2019, on the sidelines of the 35th ASEAN Summit. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha

“The region has no interest in a new imperial era where a big country can rule others on the theory that might makes right,” O’Brien said, referring to China. “America is helping our ASEAN friends uphold their sovereignty.”

Instead, the US was reduced to launching diplomatic barbs at assembled ASEAN leaders amid new diplomatic questions about its commitment to the region’s security vis-a-vis China.

“We are extremely concerned by the apparent decision [to send lower level officials to the meeting],” a US diplomat told the media in response to ASEAN members who refused to send heads of government and state to meet the American national security advisor.

“A full or partial boycott by ASEAN leaders will be seen as an intentional effort to embarrass the President of the United States of America and this will be very damaging to the substance of the ASEAN-US relations.”

“ASEAN as a whole was unhappy with US President Donald Trump who decided to skip the meeting,” an ASEAN source fired back, explaining the decision to send lower-level officials to the ASEAN-US meeting.

“They were of the view that Trump should at least send a representative who is in the Cabinet. Such a gesture may set a bad example for other dialogue partners in the future,” the ASEAN representative said.

ASEAN members were also apparently united in their refusal to side with the US’s call to unify against China’s rising assertiveness in the sea.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends the 35th ASEAN Summit Plenary Session in Nonthaburi, Thailand, November 2, 2019. Photo: Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency

The Beijing-leaning Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who serves as the current ASEAN-China country coordinator, simply called for mutual “self-restraint” in the South China Sea.

“ASEAN must, therefore, remain united. We must lead the way in building trust and confidence among all stakeholders,” the Filipino president said, while refusing to explicitly criticize China and support American efforts to rally the region.

“And we must use all the influence that we have, individually and collectively, to persuade parties to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation,” Duterte said.

The regional body did vow to finalize within three years a long-negotiated legally binding Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, which once enacted would work to prevent conflict, preserve freedom of navigation and overflight, and ensure peaceful management of disputes in one of the world’s most important waterways.

“We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea and recognized the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and prosperity,” the ASEAN chairman’s joint statement read.

“We welcomed the aspiration to conclude the CoC within a 3-year timeline as proposed by China or earlier,” the statement added, marking the year 2022 for the completion of the much-anticipated document.

There are, however, lingering concerns over whether China will ever agree to a binding multilateral regime, which would necessarily limit its room for maneuver in waters where it is now fast consolidating control.

The Liaoning carrier group with destroyers and frigates during a naval exercise in the western Pacific. Photo: AFP
China’s Liaoning carrier group with destroyers and frigates during a naval exercise in the South China Sea in 2018. Photo: AFP

Three years earlier, Beijing flatly rejected an arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague, constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that legally debunked China’s expansive claims to the sea in its nine-dash line map, as a “piece of trash paper.”

In the meantime, Beijing has rapidly changed the facts at sea, strengthening its grip on contested land features and islands, and building up features it has steadily militarized and fortified with ever-larger maritime militia forces.

Moreover, a legally binding document could even favor China, were Beijing to finally dictate what specific legal regime would undergird the rules of engagement among South China Sea claimant states.

During last year’s ASEAN-China negotiations for a single draft of the CoC, Beijing demanded a de facto veto over the prerogative of Southeast Asian states to conduct joint military activities with external powers, namely the US, in the South China Sea.

Beijing also pushed for exclusive sharing of precious energy and fishery resources in the area, effectively seeking the expulsion of multinational energy companies and extra-regional fishing vessels from the sea.

Certain Southeast Asian countries pushed back against those proposals, yet Beijing clearly seeks to shape the CoC to reinforce, rather than constrain, its dominance in the South China Sea.

South China Sea-Map-Benham Rise-Map-2017

Meanwhile, tensions continue to rise without a CoC in place.

In June, a suspected Chinese militia vessel intentionally rammed a Filipino fishing boat, nearly killing its 22 occupants, at the contested Reed Bank.
Recent months have seen tense, and nearly violent clashes, between Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard forces amid a months-long standoff over the sea’s energy-rich Vanguard Bank.

A Liberia-flagged, Greek-owned oil tanker, manned by a Filipino crew, was recently harassed by a Chinese naval warship in the Scarborough Shoal, raising new concerns about freedom of navigation in nearby waters.

The incident took place on September 30 but was only made public to Philippine media on November 3, coincident with Duterte’s participation in the ASEAN meetings in Bangkok.

China has previously deployed so-called “white hull” coast guard vessels to guard contested features it controls such as the Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized control over after a stand-off with the Philippines in 2012.

But the recent presence of Chinese warships – an incident that took place on September 30 but only made public to Philippine media on November 3, coincident with Duterte’s participation in the ASEAN summit – at the shoal signals a new escalation.

The tanker’s captain, Manolo Ebora, a Philippine Navy reservist with the rank of lieutenant commander, refused to relent, asserting the vessel’s right to innocent passage throughout the area despite repeated warnings by both the Chinese navy and coast guard.

Activists display anti-China placards and flags during a protest in Manila on June 18, 2019, after a Chinese vessel collided with a Philippine fishing boat which sank in the disputed South China Sea. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The ship’s captain even challenged in radio communications China’s claim to the contested shoal, which legally falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“The captain did well. He neither flinched nor cowered, and he insisted that they were making innocent passage,” said Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a frequent outspoken critic of China’s intrusions into Philippine waters, despite efforts by Duterte’s administration to downplay the incident.

“His reaction was admirable,” the defense chief said.