Sunnylands or Rancho Mirage? ASEAN and the South China Sea

China and its neighbors have competing claims to sections of the South China Sea. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has long trusted that regional diplomacy might resolve the overlapping claims and, in the meantime, the United States would keep China in check. But China has been more assertive in recent years, building up small islands and adding military installations. The hope for meaningful negotiations may be but an illusion, suggests Donald K. Emmerson, who heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University. ASEAN leaders met with President Barack Obama in Rancho Mirage, California, and released a summit declaration that conveys commitment to freedom of navigation and endorses the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Such principles may not change behavior, and Emmerson concludes, “ASEAN’s faith in its own centrality and the validation of that credence in Rancho Mirage reinforce passivity and complacence in Southeast Asia, including the idea that because ASEAN is indispensable, it need not be united, proactive, or original.”

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