When Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States formed the AUKUS on 15 September 2021, many countries in the world have raised serious concerns that this trilateral arrangement can further heighten existing security tensions in the Indo-Pacific because of AUKUS’ expressed intention to assertively counter China’s growing political power in the region. Like the QUAD or the Quadrilateral Agreement of US, Australia, India and Japan, AUKUS can be viewed as another containment approach by Western powers and their allies in the Indo-Pacific to strategically gang-up against China in their attempt to prevent Beijing from expanding its political influence in Asia and beyond.
Some Asian countries have warned that AUKUS can unnecessarily trigger a new arms race in the region that has been a fulcrum of great power competitions. Others have expressed apprehensions that the creation of AUKUS can undermine the principle of the zone of peace, freedom and neutrality being championed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as AUKUS can intensify major power rivalries with Southeast Asia as their playing ground. AUKUS can also hijack the principle of nuclear weapons free zone in Southeast Asia as the trilateral arrangement aims to equip Australia with nuclear power submarines. Moreover, AUKUS, being specifically aimed to challenge China’s maritime activities in the South China Sea, can also disrupt planned and existing China-ASEAN maritime cooperation activities aiming to promote good ocean governance in the South China Sea.
Before the establishments of AUKUS, China and ASEAN have already been promoting functional cooperation in order to peacefully manage territorial and maritime jurisdictional disputes in the region through the 2002 of the Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea. Rather than aggravate conflicts, China and ASEAN agree to pursue cooperation. Areas of cooperation identified in DOC are maritime environmental protection, marine scientific research, safety of navigation and communication at sea, search and rescue operations, and combatting transnational crimes including international terrorism. Though China and ASEAN experienced some challenges in the implementation of the DOC because of external constraints and domestic considerations, they, however, have persistently committed to pursue the implementation of the DOC while they currently negotiate for the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea to be concluded next year. Both the DOC and the COC uphold the mantra of the duty to cooperate in order to achieve good ocean governance pending the final resolution of conflicts in the South China Sea.
The idea of good ocean governance in the South China Sea being promoted by China and ASEAN strictly conforms with international efforts and standards to manage the world’s oceans and seas through responsible, accountable and transparent use of maritime resources in a manner that ensures ecological balance while achieving economic prosperity at the national and regional levels. In fact, the principle of good ocean governance has been in the maritime agenda of China-ASEAN cooperation since they established their dialogue partnerships in the 1990s.
As a confidence building measure to peacefully manage conflicts in the South China Sea, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called for the strengthening of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation in 2012. Areas of cooperation include maritime economy, infrastructure connectivity, scientific research and environmental protection, search and rescue operations, and safety of navigation. From these, President Xi Jingping announced in 2013 his vision of “New Maritime Silk Road for the 21st Century” where China used the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund to finance 17 maritime cooperation projects that support good ocean governance. Most recently, China released in June 2017 its “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under Belt and Road Initiative” that advances good ocean governance in the South China Sea. At the ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers Meeting on 7 June 2021 marking the 30th anniversary of their dialogue relations, China and ASEAN officials reaffirmed the importance of good ocean governance in their maritime cooperation efforts.
At the non-governmental and think-tank levels, the establishment of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC) has primordial purpose to uphold good ocean governance by conducting research and studies that aim to promote cooperation in the South China Sea, particularly in areas that are mostly found already in the DOC: traditional and non-traditional security, marine environmental protection, maritime environmental research, safety of navigation and communication at sea, joint development and management of natural resources, and crisis prevention and management. With the support of the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund mentioned earlier, CSARC even conducts an annual international training through the China-ASEAN Academy on Ocean Law and Governance that aims not only to build the capacity of participants to pursue good ocean governance but also to build confidence, enhance mutual trust, and promote functional cooperation among China, ASEAN and other countries in the Asia Pacific and beyond. Prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic, CSARC has already implemented 5 training programs of the Academy as of November 2019.
In short, China and ASEAN have been involved in official and non-official activities that aim to pursue maritime cooperation and good ocean governance in order to calm tensions and peacefully manage conflicts in the South China Sea. There is a need for AUKUS to be cognizant and respectful of these exemplary efforts so as not to undermine their good purposes of promoting friendship, and cooperation in the South China Sea.
To allay fears of Southeast Asian countries of its security implications, AUKUS should also embrace the principle of duty to cooperate in the South China Sea as enshrined in the DOC and the draft negotiating text of the COC. Otherwise, AUKUS will just complicate further the current regional security dynamics and disrupt ongoing China-ASEAN maritime cooperation, which is essential for the shared enjoyment of peace and prosperity in the South China Sea.
The author is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and a member of the Board of Directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC). He is a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies, Miriam College, and an Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS). This piece was prepared for presentation at the New Inclusive Asia Dialogue 2021 with a theme “Geopolitical and Security Implications of AUKUS on ASEAN” held virtually on 26 October 2021.