As the leaders of 10 Southeast Asian states gather for the 33rd ASEAN Summit this week in Singapore, hostile clouds are forming on the horizon of the South China Sea (SCS).
Just two months ago, China challenged the passage of the United States warship USS Decatur, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, near Gaven Reef and Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands in the SCS by deploying its 052C Luyang II-class guided missile destroyer Lanzhou within 45 meters of the American ship forcing the Decatur to perform an emergency maneuver to avoid a collision.
The Decatur was carrying out a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) mission in the SCS. It was the eighth FONOP since US President Donald Trump came to power in 2017. The US described the Chinese act as “unprofessional and unsafe” while China defended its action strongly, saying that it was protecting its sovereignty.
Any mistake or miscalculation in an incident such as this could trigger a major confrontation between the world’s two biggest powers. If that happens, the whole region will be in turmoil.
Last month, US Defense Secretary James Mattis canceled his Beijing trip after China downgraded the level of officials he was to meet. These incidents come at a time when both China and the US are engaging in a trade war.
At these tense and troubled times, ASEAN leaders must make efforts to maintain its traditional concept of consensus among member states in all aspects. ASEAN unity is the key to both its survival and progress. Without unity the relevance of ASEAN will diminish.
Another important factor is ASEAN’s central role in securing regional peace.
“Unity and centrality must be nurtured,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said recently in Jakarta.
The SCS conundrum, which emanates from China’s claim to over 80 percent of the SCS maritime area based on a controversial nine-dash line on the map dating back to the 1940s and what it sees as its historical rights, threatens the peace and security of the ASEAN region.
The SCS problem affects directly or indirectly the whole ASEAN region as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have overlapping claims with China over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the SCS. China also claims a small part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the SCS. The disputed area is part of what Indonesia calls the North Natuna Sea.
China’s assertive actions, such as building artificial islands in the disputed areas and militarizing them, have been described by Mattis as “intimidation and coercion” of China’s smaller neighbors. These have drawn the attention of major powers to the troubled waters of the SCS, a strategic international sea lane, through which US$5 trillion of international trade passes every year.
With the direct involvement of the US and major attention from countries like Japan, Australia, India, Britain, France, Germany and Canada, the SCS issue has now become a matter of international concern and no longer looks like bilateral disputes between China and individual claimant states from Southeast Asia.
ASEAN must play a central role in reducing regional tensions and securing peace and stability. For the ASEAN leaders, no option is left except to unite and maintain their consensus in dealing with all regional issues, including those relating to the SCS.
Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the current ASEAN chair Singapore, and Thailand – the next chair of ASEAN — must play a leading role in convincing other ASEAN countries about the importance of ASEAN unity and a common stance on burning problems like the SCS.
What the ASEAN leaders can do at the 33rd ASEAN Summit is to call on China to speed up the negotiations to conclude the much-needed Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea. But this COC, which is an essential and effective way of reducing tensions and preventing conflict in the region, must be based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and should be legally binding.
ASEAN leaders must adopt the 2016 historical decision of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) as the basis for resolving the SCS disputes. It is the first-ever legal decision that can become a benchmark to resolve maritime disputes in the SCS.
China has built numerous artificial islands through reclamation in recent years. Now it is turning them into military bases by building military facilities and deploying heavy weapons like surface-to-air missiles on those islands. Both claimant and non-claimant countries, including the US 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.
The Philippines took China to international arbitration in 2013 over the latter’s blockade of the Scarborough Shoal, which is located within the Philippines’ EEZ.
In July 2016, in a landmark decision, the PCA in The Hague clearly ruled that China had no historic title over the waters of the SCS because China had signed the UNCLOS and ratified it. Under the UNCLOS, all coastal states are entitled to 12 nautical miles of territory from their coast, a continental shelf and a 200-nautical-mile EEZ.
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 ruling.
In the greater interest of the region, China needs ASEAN and ASEAN needs China. For many years, China has been the biggest trading partner for ASEAN and a major source of investment and tourists. For a brighter future, both China and ASEAN must work together. It was a good sign when China agreed to a framework for the COC negotiations with ASEAN.
Leaders of ASEAN must call for a rules-based regional security architecture and a legally binding and effective COC during their summit in Singapore. Since there will be also the 13th East Asia Summit, just after the 33rd ASEAN Summit (EAS), in Singapore, ASEAN must play its central role in reducing tensions in the SCS as leaders like US Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be present at the summit