ASEAN And The East Sea (South China Sea) Conundrum: What Vietnam And Malaysia Should Do – Analysis


The East Sea (also known as the South China Sea) has been a vital maritime route because of its strategic position linking the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. According to economists, around $5.3 trillion worth of global trade transit through this critical oceanic space.. 

Because of the strategic significance of the East Sea for East Asian, Southeast Asian and other countries in the world, this region has emerged as  a dangerous military flash-point  because of aggressive behaviour of a certain country. Because of several illegal activities and disrespect for international laws, there is a need to defend freedom of navigation for smooth maritime commerce. 

Latest developments in the East Sea

International maritime laws, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), provides the claimant countries of the East Sea  certain rights to continental shelf and exclusive economic zones (EEZ). But several of them do not have agreed maritime boundaries agreements. This often leads to disputes. Some of these disputes have affected bilateral relations among claimant countries. Many countries have overlapping claims over EEZs and continental shelves with others. For example, Vietnam has a dispute over Tokin Gulf with China. Paracel Islands are being claimed by Vietnam, China and Taiwan while Spratly Islands are being claimed by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam. The mother of all disputes in the East Sea is China’s controversial “Nine – Dash Line”, which is the basis of all claims of both China and Taiwan.

In 2014, China illegally placed a drilling rig (HD-981) in Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf. A Chinese fishing ship collided with an Indonesian navy ship near Natuna archipelago in 2016. China openly said that it would not take part in the trial of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in which the Philippines filed a case against China on January 22, 2013.  This was in accordance with  Article 287 of the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC). It also said that it would not follow the judgment of the PCA. Subsequently, China illegally entered the continental region and economic shelf of Vietnam, of Malaysia and of Indonesia. 

For the Philippines, which is located in a special position, maintaining the peace and security in the East Sea is vital. With the intention to defend its sovereignty, Philippines sent its territorial claims in the East Sea (Spratly archipelago) to the United Nations (UN) in 1946 and sent an official diplomatic note to the UN to PCA between 2013 and 2016. Malaysia has an international trade route “connection” linking the East Sea with Malacca Sea. So, the East Sea plays an important role in its economic development. Malaysia and Vietnam presented their joint submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) of the UN to protect their rights within the continental shelf over 200 nautical miles. Brunei has enjoyed a lot of economic benefits from the East Sea. It did not put any military bases in the East Sea, but claimed its sovereignty in some islands and reefs of the East Sea. Vietnam has a long coastline of 3,200 km and EEZ with more than 1 million km2. The East Sea increasingly has become very important to Vietnam in terms of living standards, security, defence, economy and culture. Vietnam has given its legal basis and territorial evidences regarding Paracel and Spratly islands in the East Sea. Vietnam rejects China’s so-called “nine-dash line”. Other ASEAN countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia have also benefited a lot from the East Sea, a strategic sea lane. These countries clarify their positions based on their national interests.

China has been belligerent in positioning itself in the East Sea to monopolise  benefits with the long-term goal of  occupying the whole of East Sea. The East Sea is a “main gate” for it to reach the South and the India Ocean. Though Taiwan is too a claimant, it is reluctant to provoke China because of its own status. 

Outside countries are aware of the strategic importance of the East Sea and benefits from the maritime trade through this important sea route. The U.S., Japan and Australia, close allies, also have been interested in the East Sea. India, Russia, European Union (EU) and other countries also appreciate the strategic importance of the East Sea. 

The East Sea is endowed with abundant natural resources, besides its strategic relevance. It also supports global economy through its important international maritime route. Unfortunately, despite these economic benefits accruing, the East Sea has become a major flash point. Sovereignty and territorial integrity of almost half of the ASEAN member states have come under threat, mainly from China. Non-traditional security issues in the East Sea are also serious issues to be addressed.  There is a need for the ASEAN to remain united. It should organize more international conferences to get more inputs and new ideas from participating scholars. It is necessary to maintain a congenial security environment. Non-traditional security threats stemming from piracy and transnational crimes are equally worrying. Also, illegal transportation of weapons of mass destruction has become dangerous since the terrorists attack on the U.S. in September 11, 2001. In order to deal with such threats, some countries have augmented cooperation in the security domain. Bilateral and multilateral agreements or MOUs have been signed for this purpose.

The ASEAN leaders have committed to strengthen their cooperation to build a “security community” to fight pirates, terrorists, international crimes. ASEAN has implemented some multilateral agreements such as “The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia” (ReCCAP),   cooperation in national defence through mutual visits and joint manoeuvres (the joint manoeuvres name “Sharp Knife 2011” created by China and Indonesia), the 11-day manoeuvres between the US and Philippines in 2011, and the tour of Vietnam’s missile-guarded HQ-011 Dinh Tien Hoang Ship and HQ-012 Ly Thai To Ship to Indonesia and the Philippines in 2014. Recently, the Sailing Ship 286-Le Quy Don and a delegation of Vietnam People’s Navy paid a courtesy visit to the Malaysian Royal Navy from October 4-5, 2022. ASEAN has agreed to push cooperation in maritime scientific research, climate change resistance and fishing industry in future. However, ideas of cooperation in the East Sea have been hardly realized because of conflicting benefits and the suspicions about each other.

Notably, some countries in the region have allocated a big portion of their national budgets for defence for buying modern weapons, fighter jets, warships, submarines and missiles.  Illegal fishing has also created conflicts among some countries. In addition, China itself issued bans on fishing activities in Paracel and Spratly islands. All of these issues have negatively affected friendly relationships of involved countries, as well as maintaining the peace and stability in the region.

The role of ASEAN in the East Sea disputes

ASEAN was founded in 1967 by five countries and later expanded to welcome five more to its fold and has addressed successfully and managed potential conflicts in the East Sea. The organisation’s centrality is supreme for the organisation.  Some mechanisms have been used positively such as Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality – ZOPFAN (1971), Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia – TAC (1976), Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone – SEANWEFZ (1995) and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea – DOC (2002). ASEAN played an important role in pushing China, the first outside country, to sign TAC with ASEAN in 2003. TAC has become a common friendship bond not only in ASEAN but also between ASEAN and its partners, contributing to enhance amity and cooperation. The DOC has continued to maintain peace and stability in the East Sea. Regrettably, negotiations on the DOC remain incomplete despite the framework agreement was signed in 2002. The DOC is not legally binding, making it a voluntary and weak agreement. It is a toothless agreement and has been ineffective in the resolution of differences on the East Sea issue.

ASEAN’s role so far has been laudable despite some differences. It has raised the issue of the East Sea at internal summits, conferences, dialogs, forums in the region, such as the East Asian Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Summit, the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting (AMM), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Post Ministerial Conference (PMC), the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting (ADMM) or other multilateral meetings. The ultimate goal has been to build an ASEAN Community.

The East Sea issue in ASEAN Community

At its 9th Summit in October 2003, ASEAN issued a declaration of the establishment of the ASEAN community with the ASEAN Security Community (ASC), the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) as its main pillars to promote cooperation in political, economic, security and cultural fields.

In January 2007, ASEAN announced its determination to speed up the uniting process within the community with the legal base of ASEAN Charter and agreed to form the ASEAN Community in 2015 – five years earlier than the original plan. To this end, in February 2009, ASEAN approved the roadmap for the establishment of ASEAN Community 2015 and four documents including ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint (APSC), ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint (AEC), ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint (ASCC), and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration period 2009 – 2015 (IAI). As a result, ASEAN Community was officially formed on December 31, 2015 to address the political issues, unite the economies, and take responsibility for the society and people.

ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC)

According to Article 2 of the ASEAN Charter, APSC is operated on the principle of “Respecting the national independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and characteristics of all member countries”. The contents of APSC  approved at the Vientiane Summit Conference 2009 include: (1) Promoting global security related to politics, economy, culture and society but not forming a military community or military alliance; (2) respecting the main principles of ASEAN such as issuing resolutions based upon agreement, respecting national independence and sovereignty, using armed forces  not being allowed and solving conflicts peacefully; and (3) using available mechanisms and tools to  and promote security and political cooperation among ASEAN member countries, and expanding cooperation with other countries in order to maintain peace and security in the region. APSC aims to bring ASEAN political and security cooperation to a new height and intends to maintain peaceful, equal, and harmonious environment in the region and in the world.

To form APSC, ASEAN has set up cooperative mechanisms stating that multilateral cooperation is the best framework to solve unconventional security challenges such as salvage and rescue, disaster recovery and cooperation in order to form a community and effectively coordinate a multilateral cooperation mechanism. The foundation of ASPC which is closely related to the East Sea conflicts, aims at building a peaceful and secure environment for the development in Southeast Asia by improving ASEAN’s political – security cooperation with outside contributions. APSC is not intended to create a common defense block. In November 2004, the 10th ASEAN Summit in Laos approved the Vientiane Action Programme (VAP) with six main issues: promoting political cooperation, building and sharing the behaviour standard, conflict prevention, conflict solution, post conflict peace maintenance, and forming implementation mechanisms. Based on these principles, activities such as intensifying conflict-solving mechanisms via negotiation, consultation, intermediary mediation, or TAC supreme council, peace and stability maintenance, and building assistance initiatives will be carried out. These cooperation mechanisms are supported by member countries and play an important role in securing peace and stability in the region, particularly concerning the East Sea. 

The present tensions due to Sino-U.S. rivalry threaten the regional security and adversely impacts security of the region. 

ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)

ASEAN wants to build a market in which goods, services, labour, and capital are freely circulated. ASEAN has proposed a global plan with various cooperation methods to build the AEC, such as a common market and a common production site to create a competitive economy and ensure balanced economic development, thereby integrate with the global economy. To realise these goals, AEC needs a secure environment. The East Sea owns an important international marine route and diverse natural resources. China continues to show its belligerence and this remains a matter of worry.  It has tried to create dissension within the ASEAN. The ASEAN needs to be watchful of such divisive activities of China and must not allow itself to be sucked into the China orbit.  Despite its many negative effects on the region, the East Sea conflict also facilitates many opportunities for the development of the AEC, as all related countries – both inside and outside the region – recognize the importance of the East Sea. The US carried out a “come back” policy in the Asia Pacific region and heavily invested  in the East Sea issue. Other countries such as Japan, India, Australia and Russia with stakes in the Sea, would not like their roles to be diminished either.  Their presence would limit China’s power and help stabilize the region. 

ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC)

This community has a special role in the building process of the ASEAN community. ASEAN has developed a global plan related to cultural and social fields with the goal of building an ASEAN community. The ASCC’s primary goal is to promote social development and build ASEAN’s common characters.

Despite multiple institutional mechanisms, there are divisive tendencies relating to the East Sea. These hinder the community building spirit to some extent. . Under the influence or persuasion of China, some countries such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar directly or indirectly support policy of solving the East Sea problems bilaterally, which benefits China. This makes the  ASEAN a rather loose organization with low regional unity, high diversity especially in politics, society, and development among member countries. Differences among member states on the East Sea make the organisation rudderless to some extent.  Additionally, the internal situation of some countries as well as the relationship among member countries is also complicated due to past distrust, which negatively impacts the ASEAN solidarity, cooperation and prestige. To prevent potential conflicts in the East Sea, it requires member countries to exchange ideas to improve understanding. The Cultural-Social Community will help increase unity and decrease suspicions using forums and conferences. Amidst periodic hiccups, ASEAN has made noticeable progress in becoming an active regional organization, contributing to the world’s political climate, economy, culture and society.

So far, ASEAN was able to propose suitable policies to develop and maintain the stability of the region, applying mechanisms to solve some of the East Sea problems flexibly and effectively. In the coming years, however, ASEAN will meet several difficulties in keeping it in the driving seat. Moreover, another existing challenge which negatively affects the East Sea issue is the unity among ASEAN member countries. For their own benefits, some countries in ASEAN (not directly involved in the East Sea) continue to have a cautious attitude and avoid mentioning East Sea issues. Some openly voice their support for China. All these actions will both positively and negatively impact the development of ASEAN.


The East Sea issue has affected ASEAN both positively and negatively. To maintain the stable situation in the East Sea in the future, ASEAN members need to unite and to work together as a family. All claimant countries in ASEAN, especially Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, should proactively play a key role in all ASEAN forums. ASEAN should focus on increasing its solidarity among its member states with the objective of respecting international laws, protecting common interests, thereby reducing the risk of conflicts. In the context of the increasingly complicated international and regional situations, ASEAN would proactively continue to sustain the results achieved in recent years, especially in maintaining a central role, strengthening solidarity, building trust to effectively curb potential conflicts in the East Sea.

Pham Thanh Bang is a PhD candidate at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, Hanoi.


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