At the beginning of August, Manila, the capital of the Philippines, hosted a number of international forums that opened their door for foreign ministers of a number of states. These events played an important role in the preparations for a number of summits (planned for the first half of November of this year) that are going to be held for the countries that are directly or indirectly involved in the political, economic, military-strategic affairs of the Asia-Pacific region (APR) in general and the subregion of Southeast Asia in particular.
Although the dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula has been touched upon during these events, but a lion’s share of attention was paid to the South China Sea and the matters that are related to the situation in that strategic area.
By the nature of the assessments of the problems observed in Southeast Asia and South Korea, as well as approaches to the resolution of this crisis, the participants in the Manila summits could be divided into three groups.
The first group consists of ten ASEAN member countries, all of which together form the political and geographical category of “Southeast Asia”. Preparation for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the creation of ASEAN was among the most important topics in Manila.
Secondly, this is China, whose leaders are also considering it to be a part of this subregion. Finally, the were ministers from a number of countries that took part in the Manila events, that are being referred to by Beijing and a number of other players as “extra-regional forces”.
That is an extremely remarkable geopolitical meme. On the one hand, it refers to countries that are not geographically related to Southeast Asia and that allegedly have nothing to do with the political problems that exist within the region in question But at the same the use of the word “forces” means that the countries described by this term are trying to project their influence over the regions that are lying far away from their national territories.
Such countries in Beijing’s understanding are the US, followed by Japan and Australia. It should be noted, however, that the latter, while being a separate continent, is directly adjacent to Southeast Asia.
At the same time, India is also risking to find itself on the list of “extra-regional forces” is India, whose Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has also paid a visit to Manila. She participated in the preparatory activities for the next meetings of the countries participating in the East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum, which will also be held in early November in Manila.
Actually, the confrontation that exists in Southeast Asia between China and “outsiders” is the main content of the problematic situation in the subregion, as well as the political game that has been unfolding there over the past 15 years.
In this context, the 10 countries of Southeast Asia are not being regarded as partners, but as as a desired prize for the strongest geopolitical player. At the same time, the rhetoric of the leading players is characterized by an emphatic politeness to ASEAN in general and its individual members in particular. Their importance in regional affairs is formally acknowledged, and the external players are expressing their desire for developing mutually beneficial ties with them.
An illustration of all of the above mentioned trends were the deals adopted in Manila. For instance, the so-called Code of Conduct in the South China-Sea signed by China and ASEAN members. Or a Joint Statement of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the United States, Japan and Australia that was announced after a series of the Manila events.
As for the Code of Conduct, this projects has been in the works for a really long time, since as early as in the 1990s regional players would announce the need to develop certain binding norms of conduct in the South China-Sea, where territorial claims of coastal states often lead to disputes.
But the decision to develop and adopt such a document was formally announced only in 2002 at the ASEAN + China summit and since then the discussions of all of the details was rather slow and painful. That is why it is not clear how far the practical implementation of the Code of Conduct will go after the initial signing.
In this regard, one can not fail to notice the skeptical comments appearing in the Western media about the significance of this document, since the initial differences in the positions occupied by China and its southern neighbors in the course of discussions was way too obvious. If China, that may claim up to 90% of all South China-Sea waters doesn’t want any binding agreements SCM, its southern partners would like to see more “limitations” in the document that is being developed.
However, in recent years, China started to get increasingly more flexible in its relations with the ASEAN countries largely due to the fact that they’ve been seeking support of those “extra-regional forces”, and Beijing doesn’t want any of those to have a say in Southeast Asian affairs.
China keeps arguing that what is happening in the South China-Sea should be of no interest to Western powers since they are in no way related to it. That’s why the latter would adopt the above mentioned Joint Statement of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the United States, Japan and Australia.
It follows from its content that the authors are extremely concerned about the issues of “ensuring the freedom of navigation and flights over the South China-Sea”, as well as compliance with relevant international legal acts.
The three ministers, while reaffirming their countries’ intention to “swim and fly wherever international law permits,” called on China and the Philippines to adopt last year’s decision of the Hague Arbitration Court, which effectively rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China-Sea. The sharply negative attitude of the latter towards this decision is well known and has been discussed before in NEO.
We’ve been also observing the attempts to strengthen the (quasi) US-Japan-Australia alliance, the importance of which has been one again reaffirmed in Manila. This trend plays a pivotal role in the development of the situation in Southeast Asia. It’s should be reminded that two months earlier, a similar meeting of Defense Ministers of the above mentioned states was held in Singapore. Back then those ministers would adopt a paper that would state their desire to develop cooperation in the areas of security and defense, both in the trilateral and multilateral formats.
It’s curious that before the Singapore meetings and after the meetings in Manila, American destroyers would enter a 12-mile zone around the islands that Beijing believes to be an integral part of its territory. These provocations were designed to “show the military might of the US”.
However, these “demonstrations” will lead to no fundamental changes in the policies pursued by the regional players, however, we can expect further aggravation of the situation.
In general, the results of the events held in early August in Manila have once again confirmed the opposing intentions of world powers engaged in the subregion of Southeast Asia. And this face-off there’s no signs of a change.