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ASEAN Leaders Must Seek A Peaceful And Stable South China Sea With One Voice – OpEd

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All leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, except Myanmar’s military junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, will be gathering in Phnom Penh to attend the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits and its related summits from Nov. 10–13, 2022 on the theme “ASEAN Act: Addressing Challenges Together”.

As the ASEAN Chair this year, Cambodia is committed to addressing the common challenges ASEAN member states face and sustaining the “dynamism of the ASEAN community to build a strong sense of togetherness”. 

ASEAN leaders will discuss the COVID-19 pandemic recovery, South China Sea (SCS) issue, negotiations on a Code of Conduct (COC) with China, Myanmar issue, the latest situation in the Indo-Pacific, regional peace and security, and several other issues during their gathering in Phnom Penh. Leaders of the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia will also attend the 17th East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.

SCS dispute

More than 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometers of the SCS, a marginal sea of the Western Pacific Ocean and an important waterway, is claimed by China based on its controversial Nine-Dashed Line (now 10-Dashed Line Map) map. Besides sovereignty, it also claims “historical rights” in the SCS, which is rich in energy and fishery resources.

Vietnam is the second biggest claimant in the SCS after China. The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, and Taiwan have overlapping claims with China over certain parts of the SCS.

Indonesia is not a claimant, but China claims a certain portion of the North Natuna Sea (NNS), which is part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), based on its Nine-Dashed Line map.

Between December 2019 and January 2020, Chinese fishing vessels, backed by the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia, intruded into Indonesia’s EEZ to catch fish illegally. In August 2021, a Chinese survey vessel spent seven weeks conducting seabed mapping inside Indonesia’s EEZ.

“China is subjecting Indonesia to maritime gray-zone tactics – competitive acts between states short of all-out warfare –in the North Natuna Sea. China pursues these objectives in the knowledge that Indonesia will fail to respond properly,” Evan A. Laksmana, a noted Indonesian scholar, recently wrote in the Asia Times.

Since 2013, China has adopted an increasingly assertive policy in the SCS. It has embarked on massive reclamation projects to build artificial islands (some of which have been converted into military bases), intruded into the EEZs of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and harassed local fishermen.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled that China’s historical rights and its claims based on the Nine-Dashed Line map were illegal and not in line with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Philippines took China to the PCA. China and all other claimants, except Taiwan, signed and ratified the UNCLOS. Yet, China rejected the PCA ruling, calling it invalid.

The SCS conundrum has become a proxy for Sino-US rivalry. The US responded to China’s bullying of other SCS claimants by deploying its own naval power on many occasions based on “freedom of navigation”. Other countries, like the UK and France, have also conducted freedom of navigation operations in the SCS.

China’s aggressive acts have been posing a major threat to regional peace and security. ASEAN successfully signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) with China in 2002 to reduce tensions. However, the DOC is not legally binding and has become ineffective due to China’s aggressive behaviour. With Xi Jinping’s re-election to a third term as Chinese President, China’s assertiveness in the disputed SCS is predicted to increase rapidly.

COC talks

ASEAN countries are currently negotiating a Code of Conduct (COC) with China. In 2018, both China and ASEAN agreed to a single draft negotiating text for the COC as a basis for negotiations. It was supposed to be finalized in 2021, but progress has been slow due to the COVID-19 pandemic. ASEAN countries asked for face-to-face physical meetings to negotiate for a COC.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have called for a legally binding COC with China in the SCS, but this is not acceptable to China. It may try to dilute the contents and delay the concluding a COC.

There has been a lack of trust in China within ASEAN and the world. 

Xi said that ASEAN is a top priority in China’s neighbourhood diplomacy. “China resolutely opposes hegemonism and power politics. (It) wishes to maintain friendly relations with its neighbours and jointly nurture lasting peace in the region and absolutely will not seek hegemony or even less, bully the small,” Xi said while addressing the 30 th anniversary of dialogue relations between ASEAN and China in November 2021. 

“China was, is, and will always be ASEAN’s good neighbour, good friend and good partner”.

It is very difficult to believe Xi’s words given China’s massive military build-up in the SCS and Taiwan Strait. China has been conducting military exercises to threaten Taiwan and has problems with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Its incursions into Japan’s Senkaku islands and increasing tensions with its neighbour India and Australia, are alarming signs. Growing tensions between China and the US are posing a major security threat in the Indo-Pacific region.

Recently, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong told Xi in Beijing that there is an “existing unresolved problem” in Vietnam-Chinese relations, which is the SCS dispute.

China seized control of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam through force in 1974. In 1988, it seized control of Johnson South Reef by killing 64 Vietnamese soldiers. Vietnam claims the Paracel Islands, Johnson South Reef, and several areas within the Spratly Islands.

Trong was the first foreign leader invited by Xi to visit China after last month’s 20 th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The Vietnamese leader emphasized that maintenance of peace and stability at sea is very important for the development of relations between Vietnam and China.

Trong suggested that the two sides adhere to high-level common perceptions, respect each other’s legal and legitimate interests, and settle disputes and disagreements by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. Both should promote maritime negotiation mechanisms, expedite delimitation and discussion on development cooperation, fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and strive to build a substantive, effective Code of Conduct (COC).

ASEAN leaders must stick to their guns by demanding a legally binding COC, which is based on the UNCLOS, with China during their summit. They must be united and say with one voice that the COC must be concluded as soon as possible.

The COC will not resolve the issue of sovereignty over the SCS, but it will reduce tensions in the region. It calls for self-restraint and peaceful negotiations to resolve the disputes.

During the ASEAN Summits, all leaders must maintain ASEAN unity and give importance to the centrality of ASEAN. They must seek a rules-based order to maintain regional peace and security. ASEAN must be in the driving seat in all matters related to regional security architecture.

Veeramalla Anjaiah

Veeramalla Anjaiah is a Jakarta-based senior journalist and the author of the book “Azerbaijan Seen from Indonesia

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