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A Critical Assessment of ASEAN's Diplomacy Regarding the South China Sea

Walter Lohman

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is many things to its members. In part, it acts as a security community. Its successful effort in peacefully resolving conflict among its members is a matter of historical record. It has been unable, however, to extend the norms accompanying this success to managing the South China Sea dispute. Rather than unite in an effort to encompass China in the benefits of a security community, member countries have used the organisation to meet their individual national interests.

This has left the members divided. ASEAN is poorly serving some of its members in the South China Sea; the People's Republic of China (PRC) is steadily expanding its physical presence in disputed territory at their expense even as it is engaged in the region's ASEAN-centric diplomatic architecture. For other members, ASEAN is succeeding, by either meeting their narrow national interests or maintaining its broader historical mission to facilitate regional peace and prosperity. Overall, as an organisation, ASEAN's diplomacy is failing to ameliorate the dispute.

The substance of ASEAN's engagement with China on the South China Sea has essentially revolved around extension of three objectives: negotiation of a code of conduct, application of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and institutionalising "self-restraint." Examining ASEAN's failure on these specific objectives is essential to constructing an approach to community building capable of moderating China's behaviour. This paper looks at each objective in turn and then examines the specific interests of several key members.

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