ASEAN must take a collective stance on the South China Sea

4 June 2015

Author: Vignesh Ram, Manipal University

EAF – The South China Sea dispute has become the new normal in ASEAN meetings. The dispute, with its overlapping claims on various land features in the South China Sea, has started to figure as the most important territorial disputes in Asia, one that risks becoming a major power confrontation in the region. With this in mind, ASEAN must take a collective stand on the South China Sea.

Beijing deployed the Haiyang Shiyou oil rig 981 in May 2015 close to the Paracel Islands, triggering a furious reaction in Hanoi and the most serious uptick in tensions in the waters in years. (Photo: AAP)

The Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) concluded between the members of ASEAN and China was signed at Phnom Penh in 2002, exactly a decade before ASEAN’s folly over the same issue at the same venue. A number of changes in the security environment have contributed to this change. China has become more powerful and assertive in the region. And closer ties among certain member states as well as greater Chinese investment and influence in the region has allowed for rapid displays of allegiances in what seems to be a more transparent and open US–China rivalry in the Asia Pacific.

Given the regular flouting of norms by states involved in territorial disputes, the DoC can no longer be viewed as a sufficient way to regulate the behaviour of parties in the South China Sea until a Code of Conduct is agreed upon. So how can an impending flare up be contained?

One proposal has been to move towards a code of conduct. But China would not want to commit to any agreement until it has secured a relatively more powerful position in the disputed areas. China’s power projection capabilities currently far exceed that of any other country directly involved in the dispute. And China is in the process of building better access facilities for military aircraft to offset any ‘perceived’ threats in the future, should help come from friends and allies of the disputant countries opposing China.

Until it attains greater leverage, China will push its traditional stance of only discussing disputes bilaterally with member states, not with ASEAN as a whole. But China’s claim that discussions need not happen with ASEAN might not be correct in principle, given that the 2002 Memorandum of Understanding is between the governments of the member states of ASEAN and the government of the People’s Republic of China. From this wording it would seem natural that any negotiations should be held between ASEAN and China.

The time has come for ASEAN to look for new alternatives to finding a resolution. There are currently three distinctive approaches used by claimants that seem to be pulling the issue in different directions, and out of the reach of ASEAN.

One approach is to rely on international arbitration. This approach is being pursued by the Philippines. China has declined to participate in the Arbitral Tribunal. But, as per the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the trial will still continue and may very well end in the Philippines’ favour. It is hoped that this result would weaken China’s ability to strongly push for its case in international forums. And this could lead to the questioning of the legal validity to the ‘nine dash line’, which forms the basis for China’s claims.

The second, employed by China, is to defy the spirit of the DoC. China has undermined the DoC through its building activities and by using water cannons and ramming ships. This has exposed the inability of smaller states to negotiate and has stalled progress on the issue, which has largely contributed to unprecedented gains for China.

The third is the regional approach. This is losing steam as disputant states such as Vietnam move to seek closer ties with extra-regional states.

Where does this leave ASEAN as an organisation?

With the deadline for an ASEAN community slated for the end of 2015, ASEAN will likely start to face criticism from the international community for its indecisiveness on the issue. The ‘Politico Security Community’, which is one of the main pillars of the ASEAN community building process, will be affected by ongoing tensions over the South China Sea. One of the main goals of the ASEAN Politico Security Community blueprint is to create a common vision on regional security issues. This will be impeded if ASEAN cannot agree on a regional approach to the problem.

A code of conduct is not the way forward for ASEAN. ASEAN should pursue a more inclusive approach and united stand on the dispute. The time might now be ripe for such a new approach. An economically slowing China, revised defence guidelines for the US–Japan alliance, US military deployments in Southeast Asia as well as its interests with India might be enough to signal to ASEAN that the power can tilt in the favour of its member states provided they are willing to wholeheartedly pursue a resolution.

The current ASEAN chair, Malaysia, has already signalled that 2015 will only set the wheels rolling for the community building process. Future chairs of ASEAN will need to display more commitment towards reaching a beneficial agreement over the issue. But if ASEAN fails to disengage from China’s growing divisive influence soon, it may become too weak for to act decisively on the South China Sea dispute.

A new understanding of the terms of engagement with China would be a welcome start. The building of a new consensus and renegotiating the ambiguous provisions will give more scope for temporary peace in the region.  For instance, Clause 6 (a), which speaks about maritime research, has been used for various activities that lead to resource exploitation and escalation of tension. Such clauses should clearly indicate what falls under the ambit of such measures. Similarly, newer amendments are needed so that there is a clearer understanding about the non-restrictive access to airspace (this in case to avoid a unilateral Air Identification Defence Zone) like in the East China Sea. A fractured ASEAN undermines any future ability for the organisation to bargain with China.

ASEAN is already split by competing trade and security agreements between China and the US. The South China Sea dispute is slowly but steadily undermining the centrality of ASEAN in the region’s geopolitics. ASEAN’s credibility as a torchbearer of successful regionalism in Asia is on the line. Unless ASEAN takes a more decisive collective stand on the South China Sea dispute, it would seriously undermine the concept of a ‘community’ that ASEAN is seeking to build.

Vignesh Ram is a PhD candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, India.

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