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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The EU’s (Next) Asia Strategy

The ascension of Josep Borrell to the position of European Union (EU) High Representative (HR/VP) on 1 December 2019 places an EU strategy for Asia that reaches  beyond ‘connectivity’ at the center of the political agenda towards the region. This article does not seek to comment on whether this strategy should be carried out. Rather, it assumes that the inherent limitations of the EU’s first coordinated attempt to formulate an EU connectivity strategy for Asia – officially entitled a Joint Communication on ‘Connecting Europe and Asia – building blocks for an EU strategy’ – are sufficiently pronounced to warrant consideration of the question: What should the next strategy be called? 

Continue reading “The EU’s (Next) Asia Strategy”

Election Results in Taiwan: An Act of Peace, not of War

In January, Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China). She is the first woman to hold the office, but more importantly, she will be the first president from the pro-independence Democratic Progress Party (DPP) that also has a majority in the legislature. For the first time since WWII, Taiwan will not be (partly) ruled by the pro-reunification Kuomintang (KMT), the party that is the remnant of the ruling elite of China before the communists took over in 1949.

Taiwan’s status is incomparable to the situation in Hong Kong or Macau, as for them the inclusion in China is just a matter of time. They have been granted autonomy until at least 2047 and 2049 respectively, fifty years after being released as a colony. Taiwan never made any agreement with (Mainland) China over its autonomy and its mere existence is challenged by China. Indeed, they are still officially in war.

The issue of Taiwan (Republic of China) may be one of the most important challenging China’s (People’s Republic of China) growing hegemony in East Asia in the decades to come. Their official names both involve “China”, and a half century of fighting over who is the true China led to the odd status quo where they agree on the fact that there can be only one China. This includes the territories governed by both China and Taiwan, but who will rule the other is interpreted by each country differently.

How did it get so far? A brief recap of the Republic of China’s history 1860 – 2000.

After the Opium wars in 1860 China’s Qing dynasty was forced to sign a number of highly unequal treaties with Western Powers (US, UK, France and Russia). A subsequent war with Japan saw Taiwan falling into Japanese hands. In China, discontent amongst the population led to a violent rebellion in 1900 (oppressed by the Western powers, plus Japan, Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary; the Eight-Nation Alliance) and a revolution in 1912, marking the end of imperial China and Western influence.

The Republic of China (ROC) was born, and long-standing revolutionary in exile Sun Yat-sen became the new president. For political buffs, the ROC has separation of five powers, rather than Montesquieu’s three.

Sun had big dreams for China. He founded the KMT, the political party that ruled China until WWII and afterwards Taiwan for the most time until the elections last January. He is still seen as a founding father in both Taiwan and China.

Sun Yat-sen dreamt of democracy, but faced many setbacks, with local warlords declaring independence of their provinces. After years of political chaos, Sun decided that only by force could he keep the country together. This war was initiated by Chiang Kai-shek, who, after Sun’s death of cancer, took over the KMT leadership and became de facto president of China.

However, in order to defeat the warlords properly, the KMT needed the help of the newly founded Communist Party of China (CPC). By 1928 the country was finally united again, but not for long.

Revolutionary signals from Russia’s communist leaders directed towards the CPC prompted Chiang to suppress the communists, starting a new civil war. Meanwhile, Japan’s expansionism in WWII only added to the chaos. Suspending the civil war for four years, the KMT and the CPC collaborated to fight the Japanese. Finally defeating Japan with the help of the US, Taiwan was being given to the KMT after 60 years of Japanese rule. After WWII ended and the US pulled out, the civil war escalated again, and the KMT was slowly being defeated by the CPC.

After a few decisive battles in 1949, the CPC took over control in most of China, and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan with hundreds of thousands of troops and two million refugees from the old establishment, taking with him all of China’s gold reserves.

Taipei became the temporary capital (it still is, as the constitution of Taiwan still states Nanjing (in Mainland China) to be the official capital).

While the CPC became occupied with a war with South Korea, the US promised backing of the KMT in Taiwan, leading to today’s status quo. The KMT consequently ruled Taiwan with an iron fist, violently suppressing any resistance from its people and only lifting martial law in 1987 (the longest period any country has been ruled under martial law).

A transition to democracy started in the 1980s, with the first direct presidential elections in 1996. The DPP, founded (illegally) in 1986, was able to acquire presidency in 2000, though was faced with a KMT opposition majority in parliament. Now, for the first time, the DPP will have both the presidency and an absolute majority in parliament.

Past decades

Essentially a two party system, Taiwanese politics has evolved around the DPP and KMT for the past twenty years or so. With Taiwanese identity (as opposed to Chinese) becoming stronger with the younger generations, the DPP did increasingly well in the elections. A major setback came in 2009, when the first DPP president Chen Shui-bian was jailed for corruption.

The KMT won the following elections and the next president, Ma Ying-jeou, became known for his pro-China policies. Ma was hinting at reunification with China as a long-term goal, and many found his policies brought the PRC’s influence eerily close. When he tried to push a trade deal with China without debate through the legislature, where the KMT held a comfortable majority, it sparked large-scale student protests.

Largely peacefully, students occupied the parliament for two weeks. Over a hundred thousand (some say 500,000) people joined for a demonstration. Until now, the trade deal has not been ratified. This sentiment paved the way for a new DPP presidency, won in January 2016, which for the first time comes with a majority in the legislature.

One China, but which?

In the 1992 Consensus, China and Taiwan agreed to disagree on this issue. While China calls itself the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan is officially still named the Republic of China (ROC). In this complicated map you can find all the land that Taiwan claims to be part of its territory, the ROC. It covers most of the PRC and Mongolia, and bits of other countries, including the nine dashed line. For those following the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, Taiwan also claims the islands, calling them Tiaoyutai.

The 1992 Consensus also made it impossible for other countries to recognise both countries at the same time (there is only one China after all). And because a 1971 UN resolution accepted the PRC as the legitimate representative of China in the Security Council, only a handful of countries (the Holy See being the only European one) recognise the ROC rather than the PRC (although many more have active informal relations).

Why is China, at war with the KMT, not happy with the DPP?

Both China and the KMT want reunification, albeit disagree over who rules who. The DPP, however, wants independence in the long run. It ultimately wants to give up claims on China and beyond and lose the name Republic of China in favour of Taiwan. In any other conflict, this would be seen as a first step towards peace, and would be cheered by the West. In the spirit of Orwell’s 1984 however, it apparently means war.

While the previous KMT government grew closer to China, albeit on its own terms, the DPP wants more distance. Instead of the trade association with China, it wants to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP; China is not a member). A sign that other members welcome this is the gesture by Japan’s president, Shinzo Abe, when he was the first to congratulate Tsai Ing-wen on her victory.

The fear is that if Taiwan doesn’t move closer to China by itself, China will come and get what it wants by force. Taiwanese people are increasingly identifying themselves as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, showing the cultural divergence between the two countries. More economic distance would further widen this gap. If Taiwan stops calling itself Republic of China and abandons the One China policy, it creates the possibility of opening up official relations with other countries. This could give Taiwan a more formal international status, prompting China to take action before it is too late.

Stand up for democracy

It is clear that Taiwan works. Taiwan is de facto an independent country and so is China. A working democracy, Taiwan is a showcase that Asian values and democracy are not mutually exclusive. Helping the people of Taiwan is therefore in our own interest, and is it an example of ethical foreign policy.

While the status quo works for now, a more powerful China might at one point want to try out its strength on Taiwan. The current Western world’s (mainly Europe’s) reluctance to touch the issue will only pave the way for China to take Taiwan by force. The US is the only real obstacle for China to take Taiwan, because even though the US does not officially recognise Taiwan, the Taiwan Relations Act provides de facto diplomatic relations including arms supplies for Taiwan’s self-defence. However, in the future Taiwan might not be able to rely on the US military alone.

A recent response from the UK government to a petition to recognise Taiwan shows that the UK has all but official relations with Taiwan. Possible economic sanctions from China are all that stand in the way of other countries getting involved politically (as is the case with China’s other international/human rights violations).

China´s economic (and actual) weapons are only bound to get more powerful. The new election results therefore come just in time and just as China is getting into economic trouble. The victory of Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP should be considered an act of peace, not war. Making the right interpretation now is important and may shape the future. Will the world save a country that successfully made the transition to democracy, or let pressure by autocratic rulers destroy its values for the sake of economic security?

Joris Bucker is editor for the Business & Economics policy centre.

Female Genital Mutilation: An International Response

FGM. Three letters that have a power to send chills down any spine. It is incomprehensible that someone else could choose to excise a part of a human body, a piece of flesh, and someone’s womanhood.

Also known as female circumcision, FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, ie clitoridectomy and infibulation. Mainly preponderant throughout Africa, but also in the Middle East and Asia, it also occurs on our doorstep due to the constant migrations of vulnerable populations to Europe, in particular asylum seekers and refugees. The girls at risk can be as young as the age of 5. This is not a medical procedure: it has no health benefits. Neither does it stem from any religious beliefs. The justification for this procedure is solely cultural.

So why am I writing about this? Does it affect us? You and I are privileged to be in a position where it is our prerogative to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice. Freedom of speech is not a luxury – we own it. We have a power to raise awareness and protect our equals in this world. These cultures can seem worlds away from ours, which may marginalize the issue. Furthermore FGM is not always a priority and comes second to so many other forms of violence. Although strategies and conventions have focused on this cruelty, the fact remains, that according to the WHO, over 125 million girls and women in the world at this moment have been cut and numbers are perpetually increasing. Having access to this knowledge, how can we remain passive?

Before attacking this custom and banning it, it is important to understand why it prevails, as it is difficult to persuade those who uphold and carry out this practice to uproot a deeply entrenched custom overnight. It is still a sensitive topic in many countries, and one that must be addressed with prudence and diplomacy.

For the parents who submit their child to FGM, it may not be considered harmful, an assault or a violation. It is the belief that this is what must be done as a rite of passage to allow a girl to transition to womanhood (cultural and gender identity) or to prevent her from tendencies such as promiscuity or sexual deviation. It is seen as part of a “cleansing process”, to hinder bodily secretions and odours accompanied with maturity. Moreover, it is a means to ensure the purity of the female when presenting her to potential partners. These may be considered as protective measures, but the essence is that it remains a violation of human and women’s rights (it contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child), the right to life, physical integrity and health.

The social convention theory illustrates how it has become the norm to carry out this practice on girls without their consent, or their realisation of the potential future impact on their lives. This is thus the challenge: to convince not just a minority of the population, be they male or female, to break free from the social norm, but to educate the majority so that they understand the damage, and change their ideology in order to introduce a reversal of expectations. This is established through dialogue.

The United Kingdom is home to a wealth of cultures, including some for whom this practice is commonplace. The country therefore has an important role to play in eradicating this brutal act.

Educating our teachers, healthcare professionals and students at school to remain vigilant about the early signs of those at risk of an imminent procedure or to the symptoms of those who have just been cut is paramount. Signs such as a lack of integration into society, isolation from participating in physical activities, long trips to countries performing this rite and subsequent social withdrawal should be looked out for. It is imperative to provide support in the face of further complications: lasting physical effects, reluctance to seek medical attention, infection and other organ damage, as well as emotional or psychological repercussions.

Resources should be available for those who require legal guidance, and stricter measures put in place for offenders to be prosecuted. In 2003, the Female Genital Mutilation Act declared it illegal to arrange FGM outside of the UK regardless of whether it was legal in the country it takes place. However despite the criminal penalty being up to 14 years imprisonment in the UK for taking girls abroad, until this day no convictions have ensued.

We must recognise that in cultures where FGM is prevalent, avoiding the procedure can be considered as defiant, and individuals concerned are threatened with punishment. This changes the shape of their society from one of safety, to one of endangerment. However culture cannot be a means of justification for breaking the law or violating ones rights.

Abolishing female circumcision involves a multi-disciplinary approach: prosecutions, medical examinations, reporting of violence…

International governments have the manpower to support local communities to introduce educational campaigns. But we must circumvent the existing issues with these campaigns: they are mostly short term and small scale. It is time to think big: implement programmes, but monitor progress and evaluate their effects. Targeting those in power such as tribal leaders, healers, soldiers, and turning those people into role models will influence the communities who seek guidance in these leaders to follow suit. The other side of this coin however is the economic incentive for these matriarchs of society who are well paid for the procedure. Hence despite the steps taken to educate the local population, there is still a need for solutions. This is the ideal intersection for change and collaboration, partnerships and networks intertwined are key.

The access to media and other communications also enables us to propagate a message like a ripple in a pond across borders and achieve a much-required change and combat gender-based violence. There is a movement, but a more urgent effort is crucial to reach all corners of the world.

Rani Chowdhary