All nine leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will gather virtually in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, from Oct. 26 to 28 to discuss post-COVID-19 recovery, the South China Sea (SCS), regional security and other topics.
At an emergency meeting on Oct. 15 in Brunei, ASEAN foreign ministers, except Myanmar, agreed that Myanmar’s junta chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing will not be invited to the October 26-28 summit. This is an unprecedented and historical decision, giving a clear sign that ASEAN is uniting.
With its growing naval strength, aggressive China has been harassing littoral nations, especially Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, for several years.
China has been intruding into other countries’ exclusive economic zones and air spaces. Clearly ignoring the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China illegally built artificial islands in the SCS and turned some of them into military bases. In the past, China used military force to occupy the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, and the Johnson South Reef.
On Oct. 4, Malaysia summoned Chinese ambassador to Malaysia to convey Malaysia’s position and protest against the presence and activities of Chinese vessels, including a survey vessel, in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Malaysian Foreign Ministry accused China of violating local and international laws off the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak states.
In June, Malaysia scrambled fighter jets to intercept 16 Chinese warplanes that appeared off Borneo over the SCS. Malaysia said it was a breach of its sovereignty, while China said it was a routine training.
“Malaysia’s consistent position and actions are based on international law, in defense of our sovereignty and sovereign rights in our waters,” the Malaysian foreign ministry said in a statement.
On Sept. 30, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. gave instructions to his subordinates to file an official protest against China, which had deployed more than 100 ships in waters claimed by the Philippines in the West Sea. Manila calls the SCS as the West Sea.
“File now our protest on China’s incessant & unlawful restriction of Filipino fishermen from conducting legitimate fishing activities in Bajo de Masinloc,” Locsin said, using the Philippine name for Scarborough Shoal.
The Philippines considers Scarborough Shoal, a reef located 118 nautical miles (218.5 km) west of the main Philippine island of Luzon, to be within its 200-mile EEZ.
In his other tweets, Locsin ordered protests on “Chinese radio challenges unlawfully issued against Philippine maritime patrols,” and on the “continued presence of Chinese fishing vessels in [the] vicinity of Iroquois Reef.”
China did not even spare Indonesia, a non-claimant country in the SCS.
Since the end of August, a 3,400-ton Chinese survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 10, had been operating in Indonesia’s EEZ in the North Natuna Sea. It left only recently. It was not clear what the ship was doing for more than a month in Indonesia’s EEZ.
Meanwhile, another Chinese survey ship, Da Yang Hao, is now operating in an area that runs through the EEZs of Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Last year, China sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel, a move that was condemned by the international community.
Under the leadership of Vietnam, all ASEAN defense ministers issued a joint declaration that called on ASEAN states, China and other countries to “respect sovereignty and territorial integrity.” They also said that international law, including the UNCLOS, must be the basis for the “peaceful resolution of disputes” in the SCS.
China claims more than 90 percent of the SCS based on a controversial Nine-Dashed Line (now 10-Dashed Line) map. The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in a 2016 award declared that the Nine-Dashed Line map was legally invalid because China signed and ratified the UNCLOS.
Tom Abke, a maritime expert, recently wrote an article in the IPDForum website about China’s violations in the SCS.
“The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative documented 89 intrusions by Chinese government vessels into Malaysian waters from 2016 to 2019; illegal fishing by PRC vessels within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), including a January 2020 incident involving about 50 boats off the Indonesian island of Natuna Besar; and the ramming and sinking of Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats by Chinese vessels in June 2019 and April 2020, respectively,” Abke said.
“Also, Vietnam was forced to pay US$1 billion to foreign oil firms after the PRC pressured it to cancel drilling and exploration operations within its own EEZ”.
Stating that the SCS is not a China’s maritime empire, the US, France and the UK sent warships, including aircraft carriers, through SCS waters to assert international rights to freedom of navigation and overflight.
Bellicose Beijing became angry at the US and its allies.
“China is increasing its push against US warships using aggressive signaling; dangerously close maneuvering; illuminating US ships with fire-control radar, which suggests the imminent launch of weapons; and overflying at very close range,” Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO commander, said in a recent article in the Nikkei Asia website.
“China has been aggressively expanding its fleet of oceangoing warships, increasing its stock of hypersonic “carrier killer” cruise missiles and improving its undersea technology. All of this gives it more confidence in responding to the US patrols”.
The US is now more determined to challenge China’s aggressive behavior in the SCS through its strategic pivot to the Indo-Pacific region.
It hosted the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) Summit last month with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia. The four Quad leaders offered full support to ASEAN unity and centrality. The new group wants to work with ASEAN to create a rules-based security architecture.
Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore want all countries to follow UNCLOS rules. It is very important to maintain and promote peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and above the SCS. They want all parties in the SCS to have self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could escalate disputes and affect peace and stability as well as avoid actions that could further complicate the situation.
These countries want an effective and sustainable Code of Conduct (COC) with China in the SCS. The COC must be based on international maritime rules, including the UNCLOS.
Since the Quad is not a military alliance, the US, UK and Australia established a trilateral security pact called AUKUS last month to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia to play an active role in the Indo-Pacific region.
Both Quad and AUKUS were created to challenge China’s dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.
As the rivalry between China and the US intensifies, ASEAN is currently facing a big dilemma. China and the US are wooing ASEAN aggressively.
Instead of moving toward one party or the other, ASEAN must maintain its strategic independence and be in the driving seat. For that, ASEAN badly needs unity. ASEAN is one family and community. All countries must express their solidarity and full support to all SCS claimants from ASEAN. Some small ASEAN member states should not work against the objectives and goals of ASEAN. In addition, ASEAN should set new norms and punish erring member states.
ASEAN sent shockwaves across the globe by deciding not to invite Myanmar’s brutal military leader, Hlaing, for the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits in Brunei. If ASEAN leaders maintain a similar stance on the SCS conundrum and take a united position toward the UNCLOS, COC and 2016 PCA ruling, it will be a revolutionary act.
The time has come for ASEAN and its leaders to show that ASEAN is solid and united as a family.