The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are scheduled to meet in Manila and Clark, the Philippines, for the 31st ASEAN Summit and related meetings this week (Nov. 13-15).
They are expected to discuss the South China Sea (SCS) conundrum. ASEAN member states are deeply divided over the SCS and even there there has been no common policy among the ASEAN’s claimant states.
With the lack of leadership from the world’s sole superpower– the United States—on the issue of the SCS, China, the new power of the world and the biggest claimant in the SCS, is confidently threatening or bullying its small Southeast Asian neighbors.
The latest victim is the Philippines, the host of the ASEAN Summit. China sent warships to the Philippine-occupied island of Pag-asa (Thitu Island) last week when Manila wanted to build some structures on a sandbar nearly 4 kilometers off the island.
Thitu is the second-largest island in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands group. Though it has been occupied by the Philippines since 1970, the island is also claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Chinese call it Tie Zhi.
Bowing to Beijing’s intimidation, the helpless Philippines withdrew its troops and stopped the construction work.
A couple of months ago, China lodged a protest against Indonesia when the latter renamed a certain portion of its maritime area in the South China Sea northeast of resource-rich Natuna Islands as the North Natuna Sea. But Indonesia, a G20 member and the de facto leader of ASEAN, ignored Beijing’s protest.
ASEAN member states like Vietnam, the second biggest claimant after China,, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims with China and Taiwan to certain parts of the SCS, which has a maritime area of 3.5 million square kilometers.
But China claims almost the entire area of the resource-rich SCS, based on so-called “historical grounds” as well as a controversial cow-tongue-shaped “nine-dash” demarcation line.
Beijing’s behaviour in the SCS, especially its reclamation activities of building artificial islands and deploying deadly weapons on those islands, poses the sin¬gle big¬gest threat to ASEAN unity, peace and sta¬bil¬ity.
But China denied recently that it was militarizing the SCS.
Yao Wen, deputy director general for policy planning of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Asian department told Asian journalists who were covering the 19th Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress recently in Beijing that China had no intention of militarization.
“China will never seek militarization of the South China Sea,” Yao said, adding that China had indeed built some structures such as lighthouses and hospitals on reclaimed reefs and islands.
Chinese actions in the SCS are raising concerns all over the world. Both claimant and non-claimant countries, including the US, India, the United Kingdom and Japan, believe that many of Beijing’s unilateral actions pose a serious threat to regional peace, security, freedom of navigation, overflight and legal fishing.
Given the potential dangers in the situation, ASEAN leaders must unite politically and adopt a common position on the issue of the SCS. They must work hard to maintain ASEAN’s centrality in all regional issues and security mechanisms and prevent war at any cost.
They should also demand that all SCS disputes must be resolved through peaceful means based on international law. They must ask China to honor the ruling of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the issue of the SCS.
The Philippines took China to international arbitration in 2013 over the latter’s blockade of the Scarborough Shoal, which is located within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
In July 2016, in a landmark decision, the PCA clearly ruled that China had no historic title over the waters of the SCS because China had signed the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and ratified it.
A majority of countries have asked China to implement the PCA’s ruling as it is legally binding, but Beijing, which boycotted the court hearings, has rejected the PCA ruling.
“China continues with impunity to defy the 2016 judgment of a duly convened international court that China is violating the terms of UNCLOS in the South China Sea. Manila, the ‘plaintiff’, which won the judgment against Beijing, chose not to press for its implementation. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte instead came close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, swayed as he was by the prospect of Chinese funding, the fear of Chinese anger, and the chanciness of US deterrence,” said Donald K. Emmerson from Stanford University in a commentary in a recent Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ newsletter.
The PCA ruling was a major blow to Beijing’s international standing.
After the major loss in The Hague, China is now putting forward the “Four Sha” island zones claim in place of the controversial nine-dash line. The Four Sha refer to four island groups, namely the Paracels, Spratlys, Macclesfield Bank and Pratas. These four island groups are called in Chinese Dongsha, Xisha, Nansha and Zongsha.
The Four Shas (“sha” means sand in Chinese) claim is based on the straight baselines around the four island groups. Though it is a clever legal strategy in comparison to the weaker nine-dash line, still the Four Shas claim clearly violates Articles 46 and 47 of the UNCLOS.
ASEAN leaders must achieve a consensus in Manila and Clark on the issue of a legally binding code of conduct (CoC) and negotiate with China. A common ASEAN position would ease the negotiations.
In a rare positive gesture, recently, China agreed to a framework agreement on a CoC with ASEAN.
But the CoC negotiations should not take a long time. The delay in the conclusion of a CoC will only benefit China. Many scholars predict that China will try to delay as much as possible the conclusion of the CoC.
Some people may question whether ASEAN can unite on the CoC, given the deep divisions and some member countries’ close links with China.
Countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand must work behind the scenes to convince other ASEAN member states to stay united and stick to ASEAN’s six-point principles on the SCS.
The six-point principles are: 1. The full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea 2002 (DOC); 2. The guidelines for the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (2011); 3. The early conclusion of a Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea; 4. Full respect for the universally recognized principles of international law, including the UNCLOS; 5. The continued exercise of self-restraint and non-use of force by all parties; and 6. The peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the UNCLOS.
ASEAN leaders must call for the effective implementation of the DOC and an early conclusion of a legally-binding and effective CoC in the SCS.
The leaders of ASEAN, especially Indonesian President Joko Widodo, must take a lead in garnering support from major powers like the US, Japan, India, Canada, the UK, France, Germany and Australia for freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS. To put pressure on Beijing and avoid war over the issue of the SCS, ASEAN badly needs the global support and the Manila Summit, especially the East Asia Summit, will be the right platform to get that support and maintain ASEAN’s centrality.