Some Southeast Asian nations considering changes to bloc rules that require consensus, so as to allow majority decisions
Diplomats are weighing changing rules at the core of decision-making in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, frustrated by internal gridlock and division in the face of Chinese pressure over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Foreign ministers of the 10-member bloc are gathered in the Laotian capital for their most important series of meetings since the Philippines received a legal victory over China on July 12, when a United Nations-backed arbitration panel concluded that China’s claims to nearly all of the sea had no legal basis.
The ruling enraged Beijing, which has steadily built up a military presence in recent years and constructed artificial islands in contested areas. China has rejected the court’s finding and has pressured Southeast Asian nations that depend heavily on China for trade and investment to stop Asean as a diplomatic bloc from recognizing it. Asean makes decisions by consensus.
Five Asean members—Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Indonesia—claim territorial or usage rights in the strategic waters, home to rich fisheries and oil-and-gas reserves that see the passage of $5 trillion in trade each year.
Southeast Asian diplomats said this weekend that they’re increasingly offended by what they describe as China’s manipulation of the bloc. Close Beijing ally Cambodia has blocked group statements concerning the South China Sea.
The frustration is leading to discussion of hitherto taboo ideas about altering Asean’s rules to allow a break from required consensus and enable the creation of smaller coalitions that would allow an Asean majority to move forward on contentious issues, diplomats said.
One way would be to adapt a method from the way Asean formulates economic initiatives, where the grouping can allow some members to defer on agreements. Asean struck a deal years ago, for example, to implement zero tariffs but gave four least-developed members extra time to comply.
“If Asean is to survive, then Asean-X has to apply to the security realm as it does in trade,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, referring to the system of non-consensus decisions. “Asean can no longer afford to be held hostage by its more pliable and most-recent members.”
However, the main challenge, experts say, is that a consensus vote would likely be required to make such changes to the rules, and China’s allies could simply block it.
Frustration was on hand late Saturday, when Indonesia convened a side meeting. The aim was to reach consensus on a set of guiding principles that would build momentum and carry the group through a round of increasingly larger annual meetings in coming days, including with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of China and other large Asian powers. Diplomats described the meeting as a way to bring Cambodia into the fold—but it broke up without news of an agreement.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi had described the side meeting to reporters as a good-faith measure to remind all members of Asean’s norms and values.
“We need as a whole [for] Asean to voice the importance of protecting our home,” she said. “We must guard this home, and Indonesia will be on the front lines. We will not let others ruin our home.”
Changes to Asean rules are seen as a last-measure resort, diplomats said.
First, I think, we want to see Asean remains united,” Ms. Marsudi said.
Several participants said the Philippines and Vietnam, the two nations that have clashed most with China over maritime territorial claims, were “trying to hijack” the gathering by insisting on stronger language on the South China Sea than other members support. Diplomats from Hanoi and Manila didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment.
But diplomats complain most that China is leaning on Cambodia to block Asean efforts on the South China Sea. Some claim China’s announcement of almost $600 million in aid for Cambodia after the ruling is a reward, although China has denied any political connection to the move. Mr. Hun Sen said he asked for the aid and that it will support election infrastructure, education, and health projects.
“To force all the Asean countries to form a unified stance on this issue is contrary to unanimity through consultations,” China’s foreign ministry said in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, adding that “various states within Asean take different stances on the South China Sea issues.”
The ministry called Manila’s decision to initiate the arbitration case “treachery’’ running counter to a so-called declaration of conduct agreed to with Asean in 2002. Talks on a stronger and more-binding code of conduct have stalled for years.
Asean diplomats hope China will soften its stance with time, with some pointing to a policy paper China released after the ruling that makes no mention of the so-called “nine-dash line” that China has used to mark its claims to 90% of the sea. The tribunal ruled that the line has no legal basis.
“Let things cool for now,” one Southeast Asian diplomat said.