The results of the 30th ASEAN Summit, held in Manila on April 29, were somewhat disappointing—though not surprising. The chairman’s statement did not come close to addressing the ongoing concerns of reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea, and in fact did not even mention them (in contrast to recent statements in Laos and Malaysia). The statement also shortchanged the importance of international law. Although the document did mention the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it only raised it in a diluted general context, not in the South China Sea section. Whereas previous documents emphasized peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes “in accordance with international law”, this year’s statement cited only “universally recognized principles of international law”, sidestepping any impact of the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration Tribunal award.

It is now clear that ASEAN failed to forge a united political front against provocative actions in the South China Sea, and that the ASEAN chairman’s statement withdrew the concerns of earlier years in order to avoid provoking China. The question, then, is: has ASEAN weakness forced a shift to better accommodate China? Must ASEAN step back from the knotty South China Sea issue to make strides in other areas, such as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief and the ongoing North Korean crisis?

The answer is “no”. ASEAN does have a political role to play in the South China Sea disputes. ASEAN has brought the awareness of the international community to the South China Sea, and shaped international perceptions by issuing press releases, chairman’s statements, and joint declarations. However, these efforts have had the secondary effect of casting ASEAN as seemingly the only multilateral regional framework capable of dealing with the South China Sea issue, which is not true. Therefore, it is important to assess the utility of ASEAN in the South China Sea in a more balanced way, and to acknowledge four institutional limitations of ASEAN in regards to the South China Sea.

First, ASEAN as a regional institution is not designed to deal with a specific issue. ASEAN is an institution that aggregates member states’ broader national interests with an end goal of preventing Southeast Asia’s political marginalization in East Asia, as well as excessive interference from external actors. Beyond this, each member state has its own interests and political positions, a difference that became more acute after Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia joined ASEAN in the 1990s. It should be recognized that this collective action problem persists in traditional security issues, including on the South China Sea, and it is entirely possible, though unlikely, that an incident like ASEAN’s failure to adopt a joint communique as in Cambodia in 2012 could occur again.

Second, ASEAN is unlikely to present a unified front for any concrete official statements on the South China Sea. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for ASEAN to explicitly discuss the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration award. This point is evident in ASEAN’s repeated failures to issue a joint statement or declaration before and after the July 12, 2016 award announcement. ASEAN attempted to produce a statement after the ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers Meeting in June 2016, before the tribunal’s decision, but was hampered by China. There was also a political move within ASEAN to broach the subject soon after the award was issued, but differing political positions and loyalties among the member states prevented it. The only ASEAN member states to issue explicit statements on the award were Vietnam and the Philippines.

Third, the chairman’s statement is not an indicator of ASEAN’s utility in the South China Sea. Unlike the joint communiqué, the chairman’s statement is not a consensual document and is not meant to represent the whole of ASEAN’s political position. It is not a worthwhile exercise to judge ASEAN’s political posture and any shift to accommodate an outside power solely by a chairman’s statement. The tone of the statement can and does change over time depending on which nation is currently the chair, and its consistency should not be assumed. One can fairly decry ASEAN’s inability to reach consensus, but to say the organization as a whole is accommodating China is another matter altogether.

Fourth, one cannot dismiss the importance of ASEAN member states’ domestic politics. ASEAN’s official statement can be greatly influenced by political changes within any ASEAN member state because of the consensus decision-making procedure. A prime recent example is the shift in the Philippines from the pro-Washington President Benigno Aquino to the pro-Beijing President Rodrigo Duterte, and the subsequent impact on Philippine foreign policy, especially on the South China Sea. Duterte has prioritized economic cooperation with China while attempting to maintain the status quo in the South China Sea, rather than status quo ante. This political posture has been reflected in ASEAN’s recent statements, particularly since the Philippines became ASEAN chair this year.

Given these institutional limitations, ASEAN’s political position is relatively fluid and it is perhaps not altogether useful to pick over every document or statement issued by ASEAN. As long as ASEAN does not roll back its consensual statement on the six-point principles to deal with the South China Sea situation, the rhetoric used in ASEAN’s document should be considered a short-term political compromise among member states. Releases can instead be seen as an indicator of the evolving degree of cooperation between China and ASEAN claimants at the present moment. ASEAN’s current focus has been on implementing the promises made at the 2016 ASEAN-China summit, among them completion of the consultation on the Code of Conduct (COC) outline in the first half of 2017. While the adoption of the COC remains a distant future goal, meeting these milestones can be seen as progress.

Rather than relying solely on the parsed language of chairman’s statements to assess progress on the South China Sea, two non-ASEAN indicators should also be considered. The first and foremost indicator is whether any of the claimant states pursue militarization or reclamation in the disputed areas. Achieving status quo ante is difficult, but the status quo in place as of July 2016, when the Arbitration Tribunal award was issued, can serve as an acceptable reference point. The second indicator is whether the Philippines sacrifices the 2016 arbitration award for other political and economic benefits without clearly resolving the territorial issues. The tribunal award provides a legal tool for the Philippines to legitimately aim for a status quo ante resolution in the South China Sea. Losing this tool would strike a blow against international law and encourage other claimant states to pursue a fait accompli strategy.

These three indicators—the development of ASEAN’s cooperative framework, the status of militarization and reclamation, and Manila’s direction on the arbitral award—serve as a useful barometer for the situation. In this sense, ASEAN’s next milestone is the end of July, when the COC outline is supposed to be completed. At the same time, ASEAN is not the only player in the South China Sea. External states, such as the United States, Japan, and Australia, have a significant role to play in times of contingency. But under the condition that these three conditions remain relatively stable, the role of external states should focus on coast guard and military capacity-building efforts to enhance their deterrent capacity and consequence management in the South China Sea.

About Kei Koga

Kei Koga is an assistant professor in the Public Policy & Global Affairs Programme at School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research focus includes East Asian security issues, U.S. alliances in Asia, and regional institutions such as ASEAN. He received his Ph.D. from the Fletcher School, Tufts University.