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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