This week's meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit proved another reminder of those bodies' incompetence in mediating South China Sea claims. It should be the last such disappointment for the Southeast Asian states most concerned with China's encroachment in the region. Rather than try to carry reluctant countries along with them in future Asean summits, interested parties should instead form a separate maritime-focused group to confront Beijing's territorial claims head on.
Asean remains a key regional institution, particularly for removing barriers to the free flow of goods, investment and people. But members for whom the sea is a burning issue will be forever frustrated by the fact that the rest of Asean has no desire to create difficulties in relations with China. With frustration comes weakness: Asean disunity supports Beijing's refusal to discuss the South China Sea with groups of states, allowing China to instead pursue a divide-and-conquer bilateral negotiation strategy.
The damage these divisions can do to Asean was vividly illustrated at its foreign ministers meeting in Phnomh Penh in July. For the first time in that meetings' history, the group failed to issue a joint communiqué. This week's summit has again led to a direct confrontation between the Philippines and Cambodia.
Much has been made of China's influence over summit host Cambodia, but Asean's inaction on the South China Sea cannot be blamed solely on Phnom Penh's obstructionism. There are other Asean states for whom the South China Sea is not a priority. Burma may no longer be in Beijing's pocket, but its sea interests lie elsewhere. Thailand looks north as well as seaward, and has no direct concerns with China over the disputed waters. Singapore is more interested in navigation rights than ownership.
Asean has a habit of pretending that it can do more than it can. Even with boundary issues involving each other, member states have tended to use international rather than regional mechanisms, as in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia's dispute over Sipidan and Ligitan islands.
The group's 2002 Declaration of Conduct with China in has been shown to be a dead letter in the South China Sea dispute. Beijing has used its power to create new facts on the ground. It's now clear that China's dotted-line claim to nearly all of the South China Sea is not a fantasy but a real project, albeit one with no time frame.
More talk at Asean meetings about codes of conduct is delusional stuff. The code, while loved by Asean foreign ministers, has done nothing to shield Vietnam and the Philippines from Chinese incursions into their 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Malaysia and Brunei have so far escaped direct Chinese attention thanks to their small EEZs and island claims, but China's long arm will reach their waters soon enough.
These countries plus Indonesia need to set up a special group, informally linked to Asean, that can build consensus on negotiating with China. Indonesia has to be part of this group because as the largest southeast state and implied leader of the Malay world, it has much to lose diplomatically from China dominating the smaller states one by one. What's more, its Natuna islands and gas fields lie perilously close to the southwestern limit of China's claims.
Once arranged into a more workable assembly, what would this group actually do? The first task would be to agree on a common historical narrative, one which precedes the era of Western and Chinese expansion that defined the boundaries of today's Southeast Asian states.
Those nations may be new creations, but they are the legitimate successors to maritime states that sailed the South China Sea long before the arrival of the Chinese, who did not colonize Taiwan until around 1650. The history of the Malay and central-southern Vietnamese worlds has often been neglected by diplomats overwhelmed with Chinese documents.
A second step for the interested states would be to forge compromises over their own conflicting claims. Doing so would allow them to negotiate with China from a stronger common stance.
The simplest of these compromises would be for states to mutually agree that all islands, rocks and shoals within a state's 200 nautical mile EEZ belongs to that country. (In addition, the farther-flung Paracels, seized by China from Vietnam in 1974, and claimed by no other party, would remain a bilateral issue between Beijing and Hanoi). There would remain disputes where EEZs overlapped, but these could be subject to international dispute settlement or joint resource development (as Malaysia and Thailand have managed successfully).
The formation of a new negotiating group would further the cause of states that together account for two-thirds of the South China Sea's coastline. A spinoff group would also remove a bone of contention within Asean itself, helping to right an organization that has seemed increasingly hapless in the face of Chinese aggression.