With the 30th Summit at the end of the month and in the 50th year of the organization’s existence, ASEAN is again going to be faced with the vexed problem of South China Sea where there has been an ominous shift in the geo-political and maritime landscape, notwithstanding the temporary distraction by the build-up of tensions on the Korean peninsula, and the difficult choice to take a position on the same. Under the spell of a newly-found bonhomie with Beijing, Manila stewarded the foreign ministers retreat in February at Boracay island, one of the Philippines’ top tourist attractions located in central Aklan province, more than 300 kilometres south of the capital Manila, by focussing on an agenda ‘beyond South China Sea’ in the April leaders’ summit by emphasising on six priorities, which are: “a people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN, peace and stability in the region, maritime security and cooperation,inclusive and innovation-led growth, a resilient ASEAN and ASEAN as a model of regionalism, a global player” in order to put the spotlight purposefully on ASEAN’s golden anniversary. However, they could not avoid fully the burning issue, as the last paragraph in the short chairman’s press statement of eight paragraphs issued in Boracay was about the South China Sea.While it mentioned ministers’ “concern over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region,” the statement at the same time “noted the need to sustain the momentum of dialogue in order to ease tensions in the region”.
Undoubtedly, dialogue is the most realistic means to manage the dispute over the South China Sea. But what is the parameter within which such dialogues can be undertaken? Will China agree to a parameter that is not on its own terms – its declaration of ‘core interests’ that encompasses practically the whole of South China Sea? China’s latest White Paper takes a tough stance on the South China Sea issue by claiming it is an issue of China’s sovereignty and“maritime rights and interest”, warning all not to “internationalise and judicialize” the issue. Surprisingly, it does not mention China’s nine-dash line, referring only to “China’s indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters”. China has already changed the status quo in the South China Sea by building artificial islands, establishing military installations, achieving uncontrolled supremacy in the area and making it a virtual fait accompli. It has recently snubbed its most enthusiastic ally, President Duterte of the Philippines, who in early April announced his plan to raise the Philippine flag in the island of Thitu, in the Spratlys chain, and fortify it with barracks, but had to eat his words under Chinese pressure and decided to give up the idea. Duterte, who made aVolta face in Philippines’ relations with China and warmed up to Beijing, has blamed the United States for the current maritime tensions for not intervening to stop China building and arming artificial islands in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.