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Sunnylands or Rancho Mirage? ASEAN and the South China Sea

China and its neighbors have competing claims to sections of the South China Sea. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has long trusted that regional diplomacy might resolve the overlapping claims and, in the meantime, the United States would keep China in check. But China has been more assertive in recent years, building up small islands and adding military installations. The hope for meaningful negotiations may be but an illusion, suggests Donald K. Emmerson, who heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University. ASEAN leaders met with President Barack Obama in Rancho Mirage, California, and released a summit declaration that conveys commitment to freedom of navigation and endorses the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Such principles may not change behavior, and Emmerson concludes, “ASEAN’s faith in its own centrality and the validation of that credence in Rancho Mirage reinforce passivity and complacence in Southeast Asia, including the idea that because ASEAN is indispensable, it need not be united, proactive, or original." – YaleGlobal

Sunnylands or Rancho Mirage? ASEAN and the South China Sea

ASEAN, with its timid stance on the South China Sea, risks irrelevance and Chinese dominance
Donald K. Emmerson
YaleGlobal, 23 February 2016
Mirage of peace? ASEAN leaders hosted by President Obama at Sunnylands adopt a declaration for settlement of South China Sea disputes, top; meanwhile China deploys anti-aircraft missile batteries on a disputed island

STANFORD: It was meant to be a sunny summit. Welcoming ASEAN’s leaders at the Sunnylands estate, President Obama said he had invited them to southern California, not cold and snowy Washington, to reciprocate the warm welcomes he had received in their own countries on his seven presidential trips to Southeast Asia. Appreciative laughter ensued.

Naturally Obama ignored the futility implied by the name of the city where Sunnylands sits: Rancho Mirage. But as a metaphor for ASEAN’s hopes of moderating China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and the summit’s efficacy in that regard, the name of the city is more apt than that of the estate. Rancho Mirage lies in the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert. In the driver’s seat on a desert road in the shimmering heat, ASEAN might be fooled into seeing a geopolitical oasis – a meaningful agreement with China on the South China Sea – finally near and achievable with continuing patience and faith in the “ASEAN Way” of regional diplomacy by consensus and declaration.

The Sunnylands Declaration, released on 16 February at the end of the two-day summit, lays out 17 principles to guide US-ASEAN cooperation going forward. The fifth of these reaffirms “respect and support for ASEAN Centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms in the evolving regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific.”

On the day the declaration was announced, news broke that China had just deployed surface-to-air missile batteries on a land feature in the South China Sea controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan – Woody Island in the Paracels. So much for the efficacy of the declaration’s eighth principle of “shared commitment” to “non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities.”

After “activities,” the Sunnyland drafters could not even agree to add “in the South China Sea,” let alone mention China, its encompassing “nine-dash line,” or the dredging, up-building, and runway-laying that Beijing has being doing at a breakneck, unilateral, mind-your-own-business pace on the contested features that it controls. Missile launchers on Woody? Score another point for the “PRC Way” of creating lethal facts while the “ASEAN Way” drafts wishful norms.

To its credit, the summit did convey “shared commitment” to “freedom of navigation and overflight” in and above the South China Sea, and twice endorsed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But those phrases will not soften China’s refusal to allow international rules to restrain its maritime ambitions.

A mirage that gained false credibility at the summit: a notion that announcing principles will change behavior.

The notion that announcing principles will change behavior is the main mirage that gained false credibility in Rancho Mirage, at least among Southeast Asians who are disposed to value lowest-common-denominator diplomacy. They hope that China will be influenced by ASEAN-propagated norms to moderate its maritime ambition and behavior.

More than a few of Obama’s guests at Sunnylands retain faith in a single should-be, will-be solution: a Code of Conduct, or COC, in the South China Sea. The declaration does not refer to this illusion. But allegiance to such a code was evident in conversations among participants at the summit and in interviews afterwards.

For well over a decade in Southeast Asia and beyond, diplomats have been discussing the need for a – still non-existent – COC. In 2002 China and the ASEAN governments did sign a Document on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or DOC  But its hortatory spirit and provisions were violated almost from the outset by nearly all six claimants – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China’s placement of missile launchers on Woody Island, cheekily on the eve of the Sunnylands summit, was but the latest nail in the DOC’s coffin.

China and ASEAN signed a Document on Conduct for the South China Sea. Provisions were soon violated.

China and the ASEAN states undertook in the DOC “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability” in the South China Sea. China’s leaders could have observed this principle. Instead they chose to bully Manila and Hanoi, respectively, by seizing Scarborough Shoal and stationing a huge oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. They chose to harass and expel Southeast Asians from a vast nine-sided fishing zone unilaterally drawn and appropriated for China’s own priority use. They chose to complicate and escalate disputes, damage peace, and cause instability by unilaterally enlarging, outfitting, and militarizing land features under Beijing’s contested control in a manner that dwarfs in scale and lethality the up-building efforts of other claimants.

It is not in China’s expansionist interest to implement a mere declaration, the DOC. Still less attractive in Beijing’s eyes is a code with teeth – a COC whose enforcing mechanism might actually punish violations. To encourage delay, Beijing insists that the DOC must be implemented first, before a COC can be drawn up and signed. To avoid commitment and to maximize the divide et impera asymmetry of separate bilateral talks between China and each Southeast Asian claimant, Beijing calls the discussions with ASEAN “consultations,” not “negotiations.”

In 2004 China did agree with the ASEAN states to establish a Joint Working Group on the Implementation of the DOC. In October 2015 in Chengdu, China, the group met for the 15th time. Afterwards, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman assured listeners that the participants had reaffirmed “their commitment to fully and effectively implementing the DOC” and their readiness “to “work toward the early conclusion of a COC on the basis of consensus” [emphasis added].

Dissensus helps China ensure that the mirage of a code of conduct remains in sight, motivating ASEAN.

In Southeast Asia, views of China’s behavior range from acquiescence (Cambodia, Laos) to antipathy (the Philippines, Vietnam). Manipulating this dissensus helps China ensure that the mirage of a COC remains in sight, motivating ASEAN, but continues to recede, protecting China.

ASEAN’s faith in its own centrality and the validation of that credence in Rancho Mirage reinforce passivity and complacence in Southeast Asia, including the idea that because ASEAN is indispensable, it need not be united, proactive, or original.

Southeast Asian officials and analysts who excuse ASEAN’s inertia argue that the grouping isn’t a government; China’s not that much of a threat; and geography has, after all, put China permanently next door. Coaxing the four Southeast Asian claimants to settle their own overlapping claims, some say, is just too hard to do. Brainstorming alleviations and ameliorations, let alone solutions, for the South China Sea? That’s too daunting as well. Isn’t the problem really a Sino-American struggle for power? Why get involved? Why not prolong the happy combination of American ships for deterrence and Chinese markets for profit? China’s leaders at least say that they want an eventual COC. Why not keep believing in that and them and avoid rocking the boat?

By its actions, China is signaling its intent to dominate some, most, or all of the South China Sea – the heartwater of Southeast Asia. If and when China manages to coopt and cow the ASEAN states into deference and resignation, Beijing will likely “disinvite” the US Navy from accessing what China controls. If this happens, the “Centrality” of ASEAN that was lauded in Rancho Mirage will have merited that city’s name, and China’s centrality will be all too real.

Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University. His publications include, as editor, Hard Choices: Security, Democracy, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia.

Rights:Copyright © 2016 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

Comments on this Article

29 February 2016
I (Michi) posted a comment, It Is Not China's Fault, Nov. 16, 2015, on Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon, amazon usa. I am sure it will not fail to be at least a little bit interesting.
Will China be keep going on its rise? I suggest Podcast: Understanding the Internal Debates Among China's Top Thinkers by Elizabeth Economy, Asai Unbound, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr. org/. This is the conversation with Prof. Daniel Lynch of Southern California University.
I found two blogs interesting: China's Rise is Over by Prof. Lynch/ and What do China's elites think about the country's direction? by Prof. Lynch/
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , China, Rising or Falling
27 February 2016
"the United States will need to redouble its efforts to help modernize the armed forces of the Philippines and enhance its operational capabilities if Manila is to ultimately have a role in deterring China from expanding its territorial claims...," and it will be constructive "in reducing the likelihood that Asian allies take unnecessary risks with American support. (Robert D. Blackwill and Kurt M. Campbell, Xi Jinping on the Global Stage: Chinese Foreign Policy Under a Powerful but Exposed Leader, Council Special Report, Council on Foreign Relations.)"
The same dispensation can be extended to Vietnam and others if they want.
Chinese like to be appear very large and they have cultivated this skill for thousands of years. It is a kind of deceptive tactic. They use it in quarrels among themselves. It is such a familiar tactic that Chinese are not deceived by it but foreigners are deceived as a naturalized Japanese citizen, Seki Hei, says. Seki Hei, as a Chinese student Shi Ping, took part in the Tianamen Square Protest. The Chinese writer Yu Hua said to a Japanese newspaper, "We, Chinese, are always brawling at each other."
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Xi Jinping, powerful and exposed
27 February 2016
ASEAN is not cohesive enough to summon, much less sustain, the solidarity needed to stand up to China. Any hope that ASEAN will serve as a real counterweight to Chinese hegemonic ambitions is almost certainly misplaced. Beijing insists on bilateral negotiations, where it can best bring its diplomatic, political, military, and economic leverage to bear against its weaker neighbors. ASEAN as an institution has been reluctant to deal with collective security matters. Certain capitals have shown themselves particularly susceptible to Beijing's blandishments and salami-slicing tactics. The consensus-driven ASEAN Way policymaking process makes it easy for a PRC ally like Burma or Cambodian to play a spoiler role. These all militate against ASEAN ever effectively countering Beijing's "String of Pearls" strategy for expanding its maritime space with friendly ports and fortified islands stretching to the Indian Ocean.
-Richard Pruett , ASEAN Mirage
26 February 2016
It seems it has never been to US’s interest to see a totally non-confrontational environment in the South and East Asia regions. The world needs more unselfish true world leaders like:
President Carter brooked a peace deal between Egypt and Israel that benefits the Middle East for decades. Secretary Baker under President Bush negotiated with Russia to fulfill the desire of reunification of Germany that set the stage for the European Union.
Sadly both administrations last only one term.
Let’s fire missiles as the alternative.
-Hendrix , World Peace
24 February 2016
Dr. Emmerson,
I completely agree with your analysis. ASEAN will not stand up to Chinese expansionist behavior in the South China Sea. ASEAN wants unbridled trade with China AND military protection from the United States. While this is not new, China's increasing military build-up is alarming.
United States policymakers must balance international freedom of navigation with security alliances that U.S. allies depend on within the region. It requires clear thinking from all parties as Beijing asserts their authority over what China views as their sphere of influence.
UNCLOS must be negotiated as an international treaty that governs ALL international waterways. Disputes such as the ones being entrusted to ASEAN regional powers now will later result in escalated disputes in the East China Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Caribbean Sea as China continues to develop a blue-water Navy.
History has clearly shown how will these types of disputes are resolved and the international system cannot afford a world war.
-Ken Haumschilt , UNCLOS, not ASEAN, is the solution
24 February 2016
The point is clear. How and should nations develop or defend islands in dispute?
China "chose to complicate and escalate disputes, damage peace, and cause instability by unilaterally enlarging, outfitting, and militarizing land features under Beijing’s contested control in a manner that dwarfs in scale and lethality the up-building efforts of other claimants."
-AN , Asean
24 February 2016
Mr. Emmerson.:
I fear that you have missed one of the most important points of this summit. The President was meeting with the ASEAN leaders to accomplish many things, one of which was to help mitigate China's attempt to overtake the South China Sea by taking control of existing islands and actually building islands to disrupt the flow of ships in this area. China, if left to their own devices, would have complete control over this area and inhibit ships to the 10 nations that are a part of ASEAN....
-Michelle , ASEAN and the South China Sea