ASEAN and the South China Sea: Southeast Asian Regionalism in Peril?

On 21st March 2021, Sino-Philippines tensions escalated as 200 Chinese militia boats were spotted along a disputed reef in the South China Sea (SCS). For decades, similar escalations between Southeast Asian claimants, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, and China have been prevalent.

The SCS is a vital trade passage, accounting for $3.37 trillion of trade including oil and natural gas. As protecting these essential trade passages becomes more critical as China’s aggressiveness heightens, Freedom of Navigation (FON) missions,alongside technical and military assistance to various Southeast Asian countries, are increasingly undertaken by the US and its allies to counter China to uphold the “rules-based order” and safeguard critical sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Beyond the SCS being an integral economic passage, it forms an avenue for the US to balance China in Asia, heightening the SCS’ strategic importance to extra-regional actors like the US. 

As China grows more ambitious, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member bloc to promote stability, progress and cooperation in Southeast Asia, is failing to demonstrate tangible resolve in warding off China’s presence in their backyard. 

A lack of consensus makes a divided ASEAN on all fronts 

ASEAN’s disunity encumbers a cogent response to China’s aggression. Within ASEAN, individual countries have conflicting claims in the SCS  rooted within differing historical interpretations of territory in the SCS, challenging ASEAN’s legitimacy in coherently brokering a resolution with China. While the ASEAN Charter stipulates adherence to international law and calls upon peaceful settlement of disputes, this has not been completely watertight. In August 2020, Malaysia shot dead a Vietnamese fisherman after his fishing boat entered Malaysian waters, escalating Malaysia-Vietnam tensions. Although not directly related to the SCS dispute, this highlighted the propensity for inter-ASEAN conflict to easily undermine ASEAN principles of non-aggression, which is a dangerous precedent for future conflicts.

 Non-claimant ASEAN countries have occasionally hindered a concerted stance towards China, as ASEAN’s decision-making apparatus is predicated upon consensus amongst all members. In the 2012 ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN was left divided on responding to China, with some members accusing Cambodia of stymieing a unanimous response to a multilateral solution by siding with China. Cambodia’s unilateral interest in preserving cordiality with China, who frequently supports Cambodia extensively with aid, blocked ASEAN’s tradition of producing joint communique following conflicting interests, setting the precedent for ASEAN’s divisiveness towards China. 

For example, while the 2016 PCA ruled in favour of the Philippines over China, Cambodia steadfastly protected China from criticism, blocking statements mentioning the ruling against China, deadlocking ASEAN. In 2020, China was not mentioned in the 36th annual ASEAN Summit, dashing hopes of a harsher united stance against increased Chinese aggression. ASEAN dissonance inhibits an unequivocal stand against China. Claimant members like the Philippines and Vietnam, have resorted to bilateralism to resolve the issue, such as criticising China outside of ASEAN. These developments reveal ASEAN’s frailties in protecting the sovereignty and rights of the members.  

Structural and institutional frailties of ASEAN 

ASEAN falls short in having a lasting leadership, compounding difficulties in pursuing long-term strategic plans. Annually, chairmanship is rotated amongst the 10 countries, with each country injecting their national interests into the final communiques, as illustrated in the 2012 case, where Cambodia was the chair, inhibiting a cohesive communique. Without an empowered secretariat with proper initiative-making powers, ASEAN lacks a neutral-body capable of rallying its members together. Furthermore, as leadership changes every year, ensuring a continuous policy towards China is arduous, impeding resolutions to the SCS question.

These structural conundrums embolden China’s belief that the SCS issue is a bilateral, rather than multilateral issue. With ASEAN members’ mutual wariness, they seek independent measures against China, demonstrated by Cambodia’s accommodative stance juxtaposed to “Vietnam’s Naval Expansion” to ward off China.

Moving Forward: A more united ASEAN? 

While bilateral diplomacy might appear as a natural alternative to an association whose members are unprepared to resolve security concerns, especially when constrained by their policy of non-interference, their unwillingness to take a firm stance against China has grave implications. Not only would this skew China’s power asymmetry in the region, but it would cripple ASEAN as an integral stabilising force in Southeast Asia capable of defending their regional interests. With ASEAN members balancing the economic benefits of Chinese relations with China’s maritime expansion, along with the organisation’s structural weakness as an active player due to normative values of non-interference, Southeast Asia’s continued stability will be bolstered by ASEAN’s clear articulation of a stance on the South China Sea. 

ASEAN needs to build a sense of community with common interest in regional security before substantive agreements can be made regarding the SCS. By intensifying current efforts to promote ASEAN unity – both within ASEAN leadership and its people – a shared identity and responsibility to uphold the sovereignty of ASEAN members can be facilitated. With a concerted ASEAN, this raises the possibility that ASEAN members will start to see the SCS issue as a provocation on all.

This might provide grounds for a strategic communications grassroots campaign to counteract Chinese aggression, leading to capital flight from Southeast Asia and also, unifying the entire ASEAN body. Moreover, ASEAN solidarity is critical to precipitate a robust Code of Conduct (CoC) that will align the interests of all parties and stabilise the region. With a new CoC due in 2021, ASEAN needs to first, reassess its internal stance towards the SCS. Through an environment predicated on camaraderie, this can form a precursor to an internal CoC – a necessary first step before it can coherently respond to China. 

By Ariel Koh 

Ariel is second-year History and International Relations student in King’s College London and a Working Group Member of the Defence and Diplomacy Policy Center at King’s Think Tank. Her research interests lie in Sino-US relations and the role of regional organisations in global politics. 

Header image “180331-N-HE318-0283 SOUTH CHINA SEA (March 31, 2018) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) conducts a replenishment-at-sea (RAS) with the Henry J. Kaiser-class fleet replenishment oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl” by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


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Volt Europa: A New Path to The European Dream?

Back in November, the Policy Centre for European Affairs ran a Hackathon on “European cohesion in the age of populism: How should the EU strengthen European identity to counterbalance Eurosceptic forces?”. Euroscepticism and populism aren’t the only forces causing division in Europe and threatening the European project, but the motivation behind this event was to try and understand in what ways the European Union (EU) could strengthen its internal ties in order to secure its future. This is a hard question, because the EU is not in the best position to fight these forces. The EU is clearly more than a conventional international organization, but it has not yet become part of policy discussions at a state level. Even if it wished to increase its influence and assert its leadership position, there would always be strong opposition to giving EU institutions the kind of powers it would need to do so. Perhaps the solution for the future of the European project may not exist via top-down approaches championed by EU institutions. Instead, a bottom-up political movement may be needed.

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Crisis in the Near Abroad: Russia’s military build-up, and its place in the post-Soviet story

The West must accept that Russia will continue to speak for its own people in a world it considers unfair.

Russia’s relationship with Europe appears to be falling apart at a worrying pace. Events seem to be moving so quickly that it seems inevitable that the contents of this article will be incomplete by the time anybody reads it. In recent weeks, Joe Biden has ordered new sanctions on Russia, hunger-striking opposition leader Alexei Navalny is reportedly close to death, Russia has increased its military presence on its border with Ukraine, and revelations have shown that the perpetrators of the 2018 Salisbury Poisoning were also linked to a bomb blast in the Czech Republic in 2014. 

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Neither local nor global communities can afford the carelessness of Britain’s High Speed 2 Project

The 31-day tunnel protests beside Euston station have come to a close, after activists excavated and occupied underground networks to hinder the construction of an interim taxi rank – which will be built to adapt the Euston area for High Speed 2 (HS2) railway construction. Reports of the tunnel occupation are the newest of dotted media coverage that reminds us of the relentless opposition this controversial project has faced. The site the activists defended for a month is the only forested haven along the Euston Road – a place where ‘breathing is a risk’, having been frequently awarded the title of ‘one of the most polluted roads in Britain’ for exceeding legal pollution levels staggeringly for years. HS2 threatens this small park and patch of time-worn London planes trees, who will have witnessed the unfolding of this area of the city’s cultural and social history. They have been decorated symbolically with colourful scarfs for years, tied around their sturdy trunks to show visual opposition to the felling they have been threatened with – like preemptive bandages to coming, indelible wounds.  

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European waters and migration during the pandemic

As a French citizen studying in the UK, encounters with migrants while traveling across the English Channel have become a regular experience. Whether you take the Eurostar from Calais to Dover or the boat from Ouistreham to Portsmouth, you cannot ignore the reality of their situation, especially during the pandemic. One memory will always remain with me: I arrived by car at the harbour of Ouistreham when suddenly a group of migrants started chasing after the lorry ahead of us. They tried to jump on it and, unsuccessfully, attempted to open the back door of the lorry. This shocked me and at that moment I felt privileged. I had a passport and the right to legally cross the border. Meanwhile, they were illegal immigrants attempting something incredibly dangerous to be able to lead a better life. I was unable to help them and felt embarrassed that this was happening in a European country like France. But this is the reality of the lives of many migrants attempting to cross the borders to European countries.

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Regulating Cyber Warfare: Why International Law Might Need a Refresh

When we typically picture warfare, we think of military grade weaponry associated with large-scale collateral damage. When we hear the term cyberwarfare, we may think of computer viruses, technological jargon, and elusive hackers shutting down IT systems. Despite their differences cyberwarfare’s regulations in international law are far more closely related to traditional warfare than one might expect. This poses new challenges for International Humanitarian Law have left many legal scholars and policy makers questioning whether conventional rules regulating armed conflicts can actually be extrapolated to cyberspace.

The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence stands behind this approach through drafting the Tallinn Manual 2.0. This document makes use of extensive legal theorising to prove how current international legal norms can be applied to cyberwarfare. For this reason the Tallinn Manual 2.0 intends to only describe the lex lata, the law as it exists, rather than acting as a binding document or treatise. Other nations, most notably Russia and China, have instead pushed for more regulations on cyber warfare as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2009 and the International Information Security Code of Conduct in September 2011

But which approach is the right one? Do we work with the established international laws we have or do we need to create succinct laws?

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The unseen challenges of refugee youth in the face of COVID-19

The lockdown period in the UK has variably affected different groups in the country. One group consistently overlooked has been refugees and refugee children, in particular. Official figures state that there are 126,720 refugees in the UK, of which 10,295 are children. Prior to the pandemic, refugee children were already in an unfavourable position in society that affected their access to education, with many schools unwilling to allow their enrolment over fears that they would have an adverse impact on schools’ academic performance and their positions in league tables.

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Facebook and Australia: Cyber domain in turmoil?

On the morning of the 18th of February, Australians woke up to find that their access to global and local news sites on Facebook had been restricted. The issue of Australia wanting to force Facebook to pay their news institutions for putting their news online has been and still is a hot debate. Nonetheless, people in Australia and the rest of the world were disgruntled to notice how ruthlessly access to certain news sites on Facebook had been restricted. PM Scott Morrison said the following: “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Furthermore, the ex-Facebook Australian boss Mr Scheeler made the following statement: “I’ve come around to the view that the scale, size and influence of these platforms, particularly on our minds, our brains, and all the things that we do as citizens, as consumers, are just so powerful that leaving them in the hands of a few, very closely controlled companies like Facebook is the recipe for disaster.” 

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Keeping the Republic: Reflections on the American Constitution

There is an oft told story that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin told a curious group of Philadelphians that the men who assembled during the summer of 1787 had created “a Republic, if you can keep it.” With the events of recent years, it appears that the American people haven’t upheld their end of the bargain in keeping the Republic. Specific revisions to the Constitution of the United States have been so drastic that they barely resemble the Framers’ intent, leading to ruinous implications for national leadership and a lack of concern for what truly matters, state and local governance. 

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Greening the World Trade Organization: five priorities for EU foreign policy

The need to integrate climate and trade agendas

Today, humans have collectively come to constitute a geological force that undermines the very natural balances that have preempted the growth of civilization and the triumph of human nature itself, giving rise to an era of anthropogenic climate change. Human activity has already been responsible for a 1.0ºC increase over pre-industrial levels. It is widely recognized that an increase over 1.5ºC will cause irreversible harm to both human and natural ecosystems, with more extreme and variable weather events, resource scarcity, sea-level rise, biodiversity loss, economic recessions and global conflicts. 

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