Over the past week, as Vietnam’s contentious South China Sea dispute with China has escalated into outright ship-to-ship conflict around China’s new rig in the South China Sea, protests in Vietnam have escalated into major attacks on Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam (as well as on some other foreign factories, in part because demonstrators thought these factories were owned by Chinese companies.) Over the weekend, Vietnam’s government worked hard to cool the unrest inside Vietnam, primarily because the authoritarian regime in Hanoi is uncomfortable with any public protest, since it never knows what direction the demonstrations could turn. But Hanoi has not turned down its rhetorical anger at Beijing, with Hanoi’s official news agency accusing Beijing of showing “its aggressiveness by sending more military ships” to the area surrounded the disputed oil rig. Chinese ships reportedly have attacked Vietnamese coast guard ships with water cannons and rammed Vietnamese ships as well.
Noticeably absent in this latest South China Sea dispute has been the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Even though the current ASEAN secretary-general is a top former Vietnamese diplomat, and Vietnamese officials (and Philippine officials) have behind the scenes been putting pressure on other ASEAN nations to have ASEAN issue a strong joint statement condemning China’s actions. At ASEAN’s recent summit in Myanmar, the best the organization could do regarding the South China Sea was to issue a weak statement expressing “serious concern” about China’s actions. At the summit, ASEAN countries more favorably inclined to China and not involved in the Sea, including Cambodia and Vietnam, pressed to make sure that any statement on the South China Sea remained as weak as all the prior statements ASEAN has released.
ASEAN has often been criticized for being unable to unite and for having virtually no power. ASEAN does have a purpose, but that purpose has not evolved effectively even as the region has become freer, more prosperous, more intertwined, and in some ways more dangerous. When there are no pressing regional issues to address, the organization can fulfill its function of smoothing intra-Southeast Asian relations and serving as a talk shop between Southeast Asia and major powers. But when major regional issues erupt, ASEAN’s weaknesses are bared to the world. If the organization cannot offer a strong and united position on the South China Sea when an ASEAN member is seriously threatened by China and that member’s diplomat is the ASEAN secretary-general, ASEAN will never take a tougher stand on the Sea.