Although the meltdown of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh last week seemed like an unmitigated disaster, and already has resulted in a flurry of press coverage blasting the organization, the situation in the South China Sea is not necessarily headed for a steep descent into real conflict. To be sure, both sides seem likely to send more “fishing vessels” and other boats that straddle the line between civilian and military vessels into the disputed waters, raising the possibility of further skirmishes. Meanwhile, in the wake of the summit Philippine opinion leaders, and the Philippine media, are both livid at Cambodia for allegedly scuttling any joint position and increasingly aware of how vulnerable the Philippines is, having allowed their armed forces to deteriorate badly over the past two decades.
I am hardly interested in absolving either China or ASEAN, an organization poorly prepared for dealing with 21st century challenges like a rising China, but in the near term, it is not unimaginable that all sides in the dispute will cool down. Indeed, there remains some room for compromise between all Sea claimants and the United States, in order to avoid any real shooting war in the Sea. While it is unlikely that Beijing will give up its claims to the entire Sea anytime soon, Chinese officials recognize that their forceful, increasingly vocal positions on the Sea have alienated many Southeast Asian nations and pushed countries like Vietnam and the Philippines closer to the United States, exactly what China, which has ambitions of denying the U.S. access to and control of Southeast Asian waterways, does not want. Already,China has lost much of the regional good will it fostered in the late 1990s and early 2000s by agreeing, in theory, to work for a code of conduct on the South China Sea, as well as by launching a “charm offensive” of aid, diplomacy, and cultural diplomacy inSoutheast Asia.
At the same time, though some ASEAN nations like Cambodia are drawing nearer to China, while others such as the Philippines are moving closer to the United States, all ASEAN nations value the organization’s coherence, and realize that Southeast Asian states must generally provide a united front on issues if they are to be treated as a major power in East Asia, and if they hope to be the center of any future Asian regional security architecture. The savviest ASEAN officials realize this, which is why everyone from Indonesia’s foreign minister to the ASEAN Secretary-General has, in the wake of the summit, been engaged in back-and-forth diplomacy among ASEAN members to try to get them to agree to some kind of joint position on the Sea, even if that position is weaker than what the Philippines and Vietnam would have wanted.