The Manila Summit: No Grounds to Doubt ASEAN’s Standing

The 30th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was held in Manila, the Philippines, in late April, provoked fresh criticism in the western media. The general tone is that ASEAN is pandering to China and is unable to stop China’s territorial expansionism in the South China Sea and violations of the regional order. In other words, ASEAN is allegedly unable to fulfil a useful purpose. [1]

ASEAN’s critics point out that there are no references to militarization and island-building in the South China Sea or its main culprit, Beijing, in the joint statement. Neither did the statement mention China’s expansion of its manmade islands in the Spratly Archipelago, including with hangers, runways, radars and missiles, according to intelligence.

Reuters wrote that several ASEAN member states wanted the joint statement to include the term “land reclamation and militarization” but failed to bring this about. [2] They were supposedly prevented from achieving their goal by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who chaired the summit meeting and has faced a barrage of criticism for his unpredictability and reckless flirting with the forces rocking East Asia.

Are these accusations reasonable? I will attempt to answer this question, but not to take the sting out of the harsh criticism faced by ASEAN or President Duterte personally.

Everybody predicted ASEAN’s demise during and after the Cold War, during the Asian financial crisis, and when it admitted Myanmar, a political outcast, as a member state. However, dogs barked but the caravan moved on: ASEAN will mark its 50th anniversary in August 2017, which is a telling fact. Likewise, President Duterte is not oversensitive politically and does not need sham sympathy either. The point at issue is not to pander to anyone, but to try to understand if ASEAN is really acting contrary to its interests and the interests of the region.

To begin with, the final statement of the Manila summit is not an indication that it has turned a blind eye to the problems of the South China Sea. On the contrary, it includes a large section that reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and over-flight in and above the South China Sea. The statement mentioned the intention to operationalize the Guidelines for Hotline Communications among Senior Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of ASEAN Member States and China in Response to Maritime Emergencies in the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It also took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area. [3]

In the opening sections of the statement, the ASEAN nations reaffirmed the shared commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international  law, including  the  1982  UN Convention  on  the  Law  of  the Sea (UNCLOS). [4] This part of the statement cannot please China, which does not share the geographic approach to settlement in the South China Sea in keeping with UNCLOS, even though it is a UNCLOS signatory, but relies on historical arguments instead. Overall, the statement highlights the need for cooperative frameworks and solutions to existing problems, whereas ASEAN’s critics expect it to take a hard line, allegedly in order to cut the regional troublemaker down to size.

The diplomatic practice has shown convincingly that taking a hard line is useless with regard to China, which usually responds in kind, as the Western countries know very well. However, if they continue to write their critical articles despite this, this may mean that they would benefit from growing tensions and deteriorating cooperation between China and ASEAN. On a broader scale, they would benefit from kindling yet another conflict in addition to the one between the two Korean states. Maybe they need this to upset the plans of their rivals for global domination and stop the advance of the Asian century?

Getting back to ASEAN and its 50th anniversary, let us bear in mind that back in 1967 nearly all of the five founding nations had territorial disputes with at least one of the other countries and did not have internationally recognized borders with it. However, they had the political sense to put their grievances on the back burner so that they could focus on nation building, socioeconomic development and cooperation in Southeast Asia. The results of this positive approach are evident to everyone. Judging by the statement adopted at the Manila summit, ASEAN is willing to apply this solution to its relations with China, even though with reservations.

Is the current stage of regional and global development suited for this? This is a separate question. But whatever the answer to it, the Manila summit has not provided grounds to question the usefulness, if not indispensability of ASEAN as a constructive regional player.

Viktor Sumsky is Director of the ASEAN Center at MGIMO University


[1] See Beeson M. What’s the Point of ASEAN? //

[2] Southeast Asian Summit Ends in Uncertainty Over South China Sea Stance //

[3] Chairman’s Statement, 30th ASEAN Summit, Manila, 29 April 2017 //

[4] Ibid.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.