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Cracks In ASEAN Unity Over South China Sea Dispute – Analysis

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Owing to the increasing belligerence demonstrated by China in recent times on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, this oceanic space has emerged as a major flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific region as there are several claimants to this disputed maritime territory. While several smaller nations of the ASEAN grouping claim to some parts of the SCS which are in their exclusive economic zones, China claims its sovereignty over the region in its entirety. It has declared the SCS as one of its core interest, along with Tibet and Taiwan.

Vietnam and the Philippines have contested Chinese claim vigorously. While Vietnam is getting prepared to repulse to any Chinese advance and also beefing up its defence relationships with countries friendly to it such as the US, Japan and India, the Philippines has taken up the case before the international tribunal for arbitration. China has already announced that it would reject the world court verdict if it goes against it. China has categorically said that it does not recognise the arbitration and has reacted angrily to the Philippines’ legal efforts over Beijing-controlled Scarborough Shoal, which sits just 230 kilometres off the main Philippine island of Luzon. While the US and regional powers are awaiting the official response to the tribunal court ruling before reacting, Beijing stands firm. The US and the European Union have urged China to respect the ruling from The Hague when it comes. China has ignored such advice. The court has no powers of enforcement and its rulings have been ignored before.

Chinese claims

China bases its sovereignty claims on historical maps, which it has circulated with an arbitrary nine-dash line. Based on this map, China claims its jurisdiction over the bulk of the maritime space in the SCS in total disregard to other claimant nations and in violation of the universally recognised principles of international law including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The UNCLOS does not recognise historical claims and permits coastal states an exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles and a continental shelf up to 350 nautical miles.

Not only China violating global rules and disrespecting other nations’ sensitivities, it is also building new islands and enlarging some existing islands by claiming land in the SCS. Besides, it is creating civil and military infrastructure such as runways, jetties, helipads, military posts and surveillance equipment. It has also deployed surface-to-air missile launchers and operating fighter aircraft. China has also unilaterally imposed prohibition on fishing by other nations in disputed area.

The US is worried with Chinese intent to extend its strategic space much beyond its legitimate zone. In order to reassure its allies such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, the US has stationed aircraft carrier battle group in the sea and ignored Chinese protests. The Philippines has welcomed the return of the US marine to its bases. With Vietnam, the US has entered into a new era of partnership after President Obama’s visit to that country in May 2016. Not only the US lifted the ban on the export of lethal weapons to Vietnam, Vietnam’s defence and security ties with India and Japan have too deepened. From the ASEAN’s perspective, India is viewed as a counterweight to China’s advances.

India has also its own economic interests in the South China Sea. In September 2011, shortly after China and Vietnam signed an agreement seeking to contain a dispute over the SCS, India’s state-owned explorer, ONGC, said its overseas arm, ONGC Videsh Limited, had signed a three-year agreement with Petro Vietnam for developing long-term cooperation in the oil sector. It also said that it had accepted Vietnam’s offer of exploration in certain specified blocks in the SCS. This oil drilling activities are in the areas claimed by Vietnam. Therefore, India would not hesitate to intervene militarily if its national interests are jeopardized by another country. Indian political leaders are cautious, however, in naming China directly, though India has stressed time and again that it upholds freedom of navigation in international waters and respect for global code of conduct. Because of such tense situation, almost all stakeholders are engaged in expansion of their naval capability in order to safeguard their maritime interest.

While preparing to repulse China’s military advance at the appropriate time, the claimants from the ASEAN grouping have not given up dialogue as a means to resolve dispute as they realize that military is not an option to anyone’s interests.

Fissures in ASEAN grouping

In recent times, there are some fissures within the ASEAN grouping and China is clearly taking advantage of this. For example, a meeting between Chinese and ASEAN ministers over the SCS on 14 June 2016 in Kunming in south-western Yunnan province ended in confusion after Malaysia released and then retracted a joint statement that expressed “serious concerns” over developments in the disputed waterway. This was a clear demonstration of disunity in the 10-member organization, a departure from the normal practice of consensus before the members issue any such joint statement. Like India, ASEAN avoided citing China by name in statements calling from a lowering of tensions over the area. The statement merely said: “We emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea”.

Though China has reclaimed thousands hectares of land in the area and increased military presence there, it argues that the disputes in the waters, which handle more than $5 trillion of trade a year, have nothing to do with its relationship with ASEAN. The withdrawn statement read: “But we also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China”. This is being interpreted by analysts as a direct rebuke to China’s position.

More often than not, the ASEAN as a grouping has struggled to reach consensus on the matter relating to SCS and therefore issuing a joint communiqué is a problem because of disagreement within the ASEAN. Seen differently, by design China has increased ASEAN’s dependence on it so much that ASEAN would be constrained to take any precipitous action so as to adversely impact the economic interests of the member nations. It may be observed that China is the largest trading partner for the ASEAN grouping and the group would find difficult to ignore China’s deep pocket. China, it seems, is seized of this fact as in April 2016, the Chinese foreign ministry observed after a meeting with Laos, Cambodia and Brunei that the countries agreed the disputes “are not an issue between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and should not affect China-ASEAN relations”.

There have been also other occasions too when the ASEAN grouping has found it difficult to arrive at a consensus. For example, in November 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, defence ministers from the bloc were unable to agree on a final declaration. Also in August, foreign ministers struggle to reach a consensus on the matter after three-days’ of deliberations. In 2012 too when Cambodia held the ASEAN chair, the group failed to reach common ground on the SCS issue, ending a regional conference without a joint statement, the first time in its 45 year history. It was suspected that the ASEAN nations succumbed to Chinese warning not to mention the territorial spats and avoiding issue a joint statement was a convenient face saver.

Disunity in Kunming

No wonder, therefore, the June 2016 meeting went too like the earlier meetings. Malaysian and Thailand delegations were evasive, noting just that there were “serious concerns by the ASEAN foreign ministers over the developments on the ground”. Just hours after the statement was issued, the Malaysian delegate announced that the statement would be retracted with “urgent amendments” to be made. It was confusing why Malaysia wanted amendments as the carefully worded statement was nothing different from the ones used in previous statements, including at summits in Vientiane and with President Barack Obama in Sunnylands in February 2016. After all, it was not a particularly strong statement.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, however, described the meeting as “a timely and important strategic communication”, and that there were more “cooperation than disagreement in the China-ASEAN relationship, and more opportunities than challenges, more unity than friction”, implying that ASEAN resentment is too less important to be bothered. In anticipation of an imminent tribunal ruling that is expected to come down against Beijing, China has ramped up its diplomatic offensive and seems to have succeeded again by cajoling the ASEAN foreign leaders in its own soil.

The ASEAN leaders’ quick vanishing act – first issuance of the joint statement and then quick retraction – was just unusual to happen in such an important international gathering discussing an important issue such as the SCS. China seems to have used blunt diplomatic force to muzzle ASEAN on the SCS, though Laos which holds the rotating leadership of ASEAN assured many stakeholders that there shall be no repeat of 2012. What transpired at Kunming revealed the disorganization and discord among the foreign ministers of ASEAN, which is long criticized as a toothless body for its failure to address and solve key regional issues. ASEAN is based on consensus and any statement by the regional body is expected to be agreed upon by all ten member states. The Kunming experience violated this principle. After retraction, no revised joint statement was issued and individual states were open to release their own statements. Such an approach was against the ASEAN spirit. This debacle was indeed unfortunate and is surely to ratchet up the tensions.

China garners support

Knowing full well that it is being isolated within Asia because of its assertive stances on territorial issues, China is aggressively courting support from outside Asia, especially from the predominantly economically dependent countries in the Middle East and Africa. In May 2016, China claimed to have garnered support from 40 countries, including Afghanistan, Sudan and Vanuatu. China also claims to have the support of Kenya and Sierra Leone. China is taking advantage from the disunity within the ASEAN grouping with member countries pushing for a tougher response while wary of angering their key economic partner. Not only they failed to issue a joint statement, of the 10-member countries, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing territorial claims against China in the South China Sea. The non-issuance of a joint statement shows the kind of pressure China has applied on ASEAN countries on this issue over the last six months or so.

In its efforts to garner support from outside of the region, China is lobbying hard to its claims in the SCS. In doing so, China is using its economic clout to get compliance of its aid recipient countries. The importance of the SCS has increased as it is believed that it has significant oil and gas deposits. The SCS is also a major shipping route, besides a zone of high rich energy resources. More than $5 trillion of maritime trade passes each year. The US is a major user of the sea route mainly for trade purposes. The US is not a claimant in the SCS dispute but has interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight in the area. China questions the US surveillance activities and other military activities over the SCS. In the past, China has warned the US against making the SCS an international issue or multilateral issue. The US resents the Chinese domination in the region and wants India and many others to back it. China took the opportunity to thank a dozen countries who have offered support at the 14 June meeting in Kunming. China is firm in its position that all disputes should be resolved through bilateral talks.

Way out

In view of the rising tensions and mounting Chinese pressure on the ASEAN, the grouping needs to foster a long-term perspective on the SCS dispute. What needed is to intensify efforts to achieve further progress in the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS and substantive development of the Code of Conduct. The code will set guidelines for parties involved in disputes to manage tensions and avoid conflict. Dialogue is the only means to seek resolution of conflict. As the ASEAN member nations and China prepare for the ASEAN-China Commemorative Summit in Laos in September 2016 to celebrate 25 years of Dialogue Relations, one only hopes that the SCS issue shall also be on the table and resolution sought.

Like other stakeholders, Vietnam too echoed its concerns over increased military build-up in the SCS “especially the large-scale accretion and embellishment and construction of the reefs, the militarization of the artificial islands and actions of sovereignty claims that are not based on international law”. Singapore and Indonesia take a softer tone, calling on ASEAN and China to “continue working together to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea”. Indonesia’s position seems to be non-committal. Indonesia does not acknowledge a dispute with China, though it recently encountered difficulties with illegal Chinese fishing activities in its exclusive economic zone. Such conflicting positions within the ASEAN member nations put extra responsibilities on the organization to seek common grounds to resolve disputes, whose outcome shall serve the interests of all. Doors to dialogue ought to be kept open, notwithstanding the differences, because there is no better option than this.


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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi, and until recently ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, is at present Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India. E-mail: [email protected]

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