In the name of consensus.
It did come up at one point, when US President Barack Obama said: 'The landmark arbitration ruling in July, which is binding, helped to clarify maritime rights in the region.' He was referring to the verdict by an arbitral body in The Hague that rejected China's expansive claim over the South China Sea-a ruling that directly benefited not only the Philippines but also other Asean claimant countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. How bizarre that it was a non-member country that tried to put the discussion on the table, while Asean itself continued to feign obliviousness to the issue, in accordance with the bloc's avowed tradition of consensus.
Granted, America is hardly a disinterested party. Its economic might rests partly on the unrestricted movement of trade-as much as $5 trillion annually-on the disputed waters. America sees China's increasingly aggressive moves to consolidate control over the vital area as a threat to its economic and political dominance in the region; thus, it rallies Asian nations to its side whenever it can by highlighting China's muscle-flexing, which has only raised tensions and is looming to become a global flashpoint.
But it's also true that, American self-interest aside, it's more than crucial to Asean and the rest of this side of Asia that the South China Sea remain a free and open waterway. China's fictional nine-dash line places as much as 90 percent of the sea under its control, effectively ceding inordinate economic power to it and leaving other countries hostage to its interests. It disregards established international rules on exclusive economic zones, for instance, directly impacting the livelihoods of millions of citizens in the Philippines and other claimant countries that have depended on the rich fishing grounds and other resources for generations, long before China's superpower ambition bubbled to the surface.
By striking down China's claim as bereft of legal basis, the ruling of the arbitral body was a timely check on that overweening ambition. More importantly for the Philippines, which brought the suit, it became 'the only country with recognized rights instead of mere claims in the South China Sea,' as Teodoro Locsin Jr. put it. But Asean, four of whose other members are also locked in dispute with China and should therefore have seen the ruling as a boost to any collective voice it could summon against its giant neighbor, chose the path of least resistance.
Cambodia and Laos, both exceedingly friendly to China by dint of its generous aid and influence, have repeatedly blocked any formal statement by Asean calling on China to respect the ruling issued by the arbitral body. Following the Philippines' release of photos right before the Vientiane summit showing what appears to be another round of island-building by China, this time in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal which is inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, all the Asean leaders could cough up was a generic statement saying they were 'seriously concerned.' Predictably, the final document representing the position of Asean, which marks its 50th founding
anniversary in 2017, made no mention of either the developments at Scarborough Shoal or the landmark ruling in The Hague.
President Duterte, in his remarks accepting the Philippines' chairmanship of Asean next year, spoke about 'consolidat[ing] our community for our peoples with a sense of togetherness and common identity.' That sense of togetherness remains to be seen, as Asean's penchant for unity in disunity, in opting for collective muteness in the guise of consensus, continues to rob it of relevance in issues that truly matter.