ASEAN summits overshadowed by absences and a map
8 Sep 2023|

As Indonesia prepared to play host this week to the various annual ASEAN-centred summits, culminating in the 18th East Asia Summit, President Joko Widodo warned, in terms familiar to ASEAN watchers, against the risk of Southeast Asian countries being pulled into major-power rivalry. ‘ASEAN has agreed to not be a proxy to any powers,’ he boldly declared, in a reference intended to resonate equidistantly in Washington and Beijing.

If Jakarta, as the outgoing ASEAN chair, is concerned about a surfeit of competitive strategic attention from the US and China, the more immediate issue for ASEAN this week was high-level neglect, underlined by the absence of both US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping from Jakarta. ASEAN’s convening power is not what it could be, or once was.

It is not ASEAN’s fault that the regional security environment has deteriorated to the extent it has. But the dimming of ASEAN’s diplomatic fortunes is an inevitable consequence of the grouping’s increasing struggle to maintain internal coherence, which has undermined its role as an institutional hub for the region’s multilateral security architecture and raised fundamental questions about the organisation’s ability to live up to its founding purpose.

ASEAN’s limited decision-making bandwidth in the run-up to summit week was mostly concentrated on the intractable embarrassment generated by Myanmar, one of the group’s newest and most troublesome members. Not for the first time, ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship will skip Myanmar, passing to the Philippines in 2026. This move to spare ASEAN’s blushes by alphabetically rearranging the diplomatic deckchairs will do nothing to convince critics that it is any closer to a more coherent policy position on Myanmar. Neither the ASEAN chairman’s statement nor the East Asia Summit statement included any new significant initiatives or wording on the matter.

While Myanmar’s ejection from the ASEAN chair’s seat will bring the diplomatic limelight to Manila earlier than planned, the Philippines has its own reasons to feel ambivalent about ASEAN, despite being a founder member. Manila has struggled in vain to obtain diplomatic support from its fellow ASEAN members, in the face of a sustained external threat from China’s encroachment on the portion of the South China Sea that international law recognises as the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. This week’s summit statements brought no obvious changes of tone or substance on the South China Sea, either.

Instead, an apparently never-ending process to negotiate an ASEAN–China code of conduct in the South China Sea, running for more than 20 years, has taken on the feeling of a sham exercise that serves only to expose ASEAN’s powerlessness and disunity in the face of Beijing’s bilateral carrot-and-stick tactics. While Vietnam, and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Brunei, are in the same claimant boat as the Philippines, Indonesia has appeared more willing to turn a diplomatic blind eye to China’s less intense but still persistent presence in Indonesian waters near the Natuna Islands.

Widodo’s administration is preoccupied with domestic concerns, such as relocating the capital from Java to Borneo, for which it needs funding, including from China. Plans for ASEAN navies to stage an unprecedented multilateral exercise in waters north of Natuna this month, sending a strong collective signal to Beijing, have been modified in favour of a less pointed location to the south of Natuna. This adds to the impression of an organisation that appears collectively willing to look the other way in the South China Sea.

Probably the stand-out speech in Jakarta this week was given by the Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who told his ASEAN counterparts that his country ‘firmly rejects misleading narratives that frame the disputes in the South China Sea solely through the lens of strategic competition between two powerful countries’. He added: ‘This not only denies us our independence and our agency, but it also disregards our own legitimate interests.’ As well as airing its concerns about China’s recent aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, Manila was plainspoken about its growing frustration with ASEAN’s passivity on a ‘core’ issue for the Philippines.

The relevance of the East Asia Summit has also waned in tandem with ASEAN’s fading star, and the forum is at risk of descending into a perfunctory and pro forma meeting. The summit continues to fall short of its optimistic billing in Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper as ‘the region’s premier political and security forum’. Biden’s and Xi’s no-shows, too, belie that description.

Fortunately for the US and its allies, Beijing was in no mood to capitalise on Biden’s absence in Jakarta by projecting a softer side to Southeast Asia. Representing China at the ASEAN Plus Three summit on Wednesday, Premier Li Qiang shrilly warned ASEAN, Japan and South Korea against ‘taking sides, bloc confrontation and a new Cold War’.

Last week, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources unveiled a new ‘standard’ map of China, timed ‘during the celebration of Surveying and Mapping Publicity Day and the National Mapping Awareness Publicity Week’, according to China’s state media. The map drew widespread and rapid condemnation from across the region for reiterating Beijing’s expansive territorial claims, including the dashed line that encloses most of the South China Sea and Taiwan—via the inclusion of a tenth dash to the island’s east.

India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all lodged diplomatic protests. While the map restates China’s claims in very similar terms to a national map unveiled almost exactly a decade ago (which I covered for The Strategist), the episode underlines Beijing’s chronic insensitivity towards its neighbours, on land and across water, following as it did on the heels of a meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a recent altercation between China’s coastguard and Philippine vessels near Second Thomas Shoal.

A statement from China’s foreign ministry asserting that the issuance of standard maps ‘is a routine practice in China’s exercise of sovereignty’ only further inflamed regional concerns already piqued by China’s latest exercise in expansionist cartography. While Beijing’s new map represents nothing new in terms of the territorial claims it depicts, the fact that it has drawn a much sharper regional reaction than the map of 10 years ago attests to heightened threat perceptions among a majority of its neighbours, even if that reality failed to percolate down to the lengthy summit statements and handshakes on display in Jakarta this week.