By Frank Ching
Last week, on the eve of the annual ASEAN summit meeting, Beijing warned the 10-nation grouping to ��refrain from entangling itself�� in rows with China, which risked ��win-win cooperation�� with the emerging superpower. Maritime territorial disputes involving some Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines, should be dealt with by those countries on their own, the state news agency Xinhua asserted in a commentary. It warned the regional grouping not to allow the ��firebrand�� Philippines to destroy the ASEAN Community. The commentary, issued on April 27, said that ASEAN’s ��strategic statesmen�� would not allow that to happen. ��That trick is doomed,�� it said. The following day, ASEAN issued a stinging rebuke to China. In a ��chairman’s statement,�� the regional body said: ��We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability.�� The rotating ASEAN chairman this year is Malaysia, which has its own dispute with China but which is known as a moderate that eschews confrontation with Beijing.
But the chairman’s statement makes it clear that the Chinese strategy of divide-and-conquer has failed and ASEAN as a grouping is opposed to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, specifically, its claim to almost the whole sea and its land reclamation and the construction of air and sea military facilities that can be used by its military. Satellite photographs showing China dredging sand and pouring it on semi-submerged reefs to create artificial islands to strengthen its territorial claims and project its power have clearly had an impact on Southeast Asian countries, which are all relatively weak militarily.
‘Moral authority’ Accusing China of eroding trust and possibly undermining peace and stability goes further than anything the regional grouping has said previously. While ASEAN has no enforcement powers, it has strong moral authority. ��In this regard,�� the statement continued, ��we instructed our foreign ministers to urgently address this matter constructively including under the various ASEAN frameworks such as ASEAN-China relations, as well as the principle of peaceful coexistence.��