ASEAN China in Vague Pact
Is ASEAN's Creative Ambiguity Too Vague?

Time will tell whether the guidelines reached in Bali will settle down the territorial dispute over the South China Sea or paper it over.

Contact Editor
Amiel Ungar,



The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reached agreement on guidelines for implementing the DOC (Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea).

Presumably this will concretize the agreement reached in 2002 to decide disputes over territory via peaceful means as opposed to the recent sabre rattling.

However, the vagueness of the document and the fact that it took eight and a half years to negotiate demonstrates that problems remain. The dispute was highlighted when Filipino parliamentarians landed on one of the disputed islands in what they call the West Philippines Sea, planted the flag of the Philippines and patted themselves on the back crowing "mission accomplished".

The mission is far from accomplished. China interprets the agreement only as a blueprint for cooperation and the establishment of special committees on marine scientific research, environmental protection, safety, search and rescue operations and freedom of navigation.

All these issues can coexist with a Chinese assertion of sovereignty over the sea and do not contradict China's claim to oil and gas rights, a claim partially disputed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.  

If war should break out, China can close the sea to other countries if its claim to sovereignty is recognized or uncontested.

The foreign secretary of the Philippines, Alberto del Rosario, knows that and complains that the document lacks teeth and is incomplete.

China made a minor concession by discussing the issue at all in a multilateral forum, as the Chinese preference is to deal with each country bilaterally. The Secretary-General of ASEAN, former Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, expressed the delicate compromise on this issue as well, saying: “In the end it will have to be bilateral, but ASEAN can offer a moral framework and a political support system,”

In other words, while each overlapping dispute would have to be resolved country-to-country (China's position), ASEAN had to be part of the solution (the position espoused by the other countries involved).

Surin, however, issued some veiled hints in an attempt to persuade the Chinese. It was necessary for Asia to resolve its territorial disputes in order to take a leading role in world affairs and give the international community confidence that Asia could "manage its own affairs".  

“If you want to keep the region free from external involvement, you have to demonstrate to the world that you can manage things within the region,”

The Philippines has threatened to take its disputes with China to the United Nations international tribunal for the law of the sea and if China does not want to go along, the Philippines would ask the Tribunal for a nonbinding decision.

The United States has also involved itself. Therefore if the Chinese want the issue settled in Asia they will have  to be more flexible.