THE Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which had just turned 50, held its meetings here last week. There were the usual photo opportunities, the long meetings, the dinners and pleasantries. It was exciting to see how the regional organization evolved and how far it has become. Indeed it has seen the emergence of Southeast Asia not just as a political bloc but an economic hub, with its rich and diverse resources and human capital.
At the end of the event, the foreign ministers of the 10 member countries came up with a joint statement that highlighted cooperation amid a dynamic world.
The Philippines, as this year’s chairman of the regional organization, did a good job of playing host to its fellow members—it did not quite do as well, however, in asserting its own interest and leading the group to be a more assertive player in global politics, especially in the issue of standing up to its neighbor, China.
Three other Asean members—Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam—have overlapping territorial claims with China. Beijing has consistently claimed as much as 90 percent of the South China Sea and has in fact built structures on some of the disputed lands, or built man-made islands. The Philippines, specifically, has raised the issue of intrusion into the disputed waters with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which, for its part, agreed with us and told China it had no legal basis for its claims.
Unfortunately, such a favorable ruling seems to have gotten lost on this administration.
Amid calls for a stronger statement that would assert the PCA verdict, the Asean foreign ministers instead opted to be diplomatic about the entire issue even as it decried militarization in the South China Sea. They and China agreed they would work toward a Code of Conduct for the region, but there are no indications such a code would be legally binding.
Our own Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano explains: “We do not like the actions of some players including China in the past, but we need to have progress. If you go back in the past just to scold, it’s regressive.”
But nobody is saying the region should scold China—as if that approach would work on a country like it. Scolding is altogether different from asserting one’s position and telling the parties concerned we are aware of what is due us and expect some respect.
The region is composed of countries of varying economic profiles, demographics, and political muscle. Individually, it has strong states and fragile ones. Some are able to define their future while some are left helpless before external forces.
Collectively, Asean has the mandate and moral responsibility to ensure basic rights of its citizens are respected, and that no injustice occurs to its people. It is still being criticized for its silence on the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Today, on the issue of China, it might feel it has taken the safe, diplomatic road. Unfortunately, diplomacy works only with those who understand that others are equally entitled to rights and respect.