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.


“Malaysia coast guard kill Vietnamese fisherman in South China Sea”, Channel News Asia, August 17, 2020,

“Philippines accuses China of ‘incursion’ in disputed sea,” Channel News Asia, March 21, 2021,

ASEAN,  “ASEAN Secretariat”, accessed 25th March 2021,

ASEAN, “ASEAN Chair”, accessed 25th March 2021,

ASEAN, “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea”, accessed 25th March 2021,

ASEAN, “The Asean Charter”, accessed 25th March 2021,

Bong, Chansambath, “Cambodia’s Disastrous Dependence on China: A History Lesson”, The Diplomat, 4 Dec, 2019

Bower, Ernest Z,. “China Reveals Its Hand on ASEAN in Phnom Penh”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 20, 2021,

Chang, Felix K., “Resist and Reward: Vietnam’s Naval Expansion”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Nov 6, 2019,

Council of Foreign Relations, “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea”, accessed 25th March 2021,

Ha, Hoang Thi, “Pitfalls for ASEAN in negotiating a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.” ISEAS Yusok Ishak Institute (2019): 1-8.

Hunt, Luke, “ASEAN Summit fallout continues.” The Diplomat 20 (2012).

Mahbubani, Kishore, ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy underpins regional stability, East Asian Forum, 18 June 2017,

Mogato, Manuel, Micheal Martina and Ben Blanchard, “ASEAN deadlocked on South China Sea, Cambodia blocks statement”, Reuters, July 25, 2016,

Severino, Rodolfo C. “ASEAN and the South China Sea.” Security Challenges 6, no. 2 (2010): 37-47.

Valencia, Mark, “After ASEAN summit, little change on the South China Sea”, The Lowy Institute, 1 July 2020,

China’s oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang


Xinjiang provides a fascinating example of the fusion of diverse and complex heritage by the cultural and spiritual influence of Islam and Buddhism. The trade and complementary influences enriched human development and left a profound impression on the political, economic, and social life throughout the region. Referred to as the ‘pivot of Asia’ by noted American scholar Owen Lattimore, Xinjiang is China’s declared core strategic area, where it brooks no international interference in its internal affairs.

The status of Xinjiang (a provincial-level autonomous zone of China) can be classified as highly geostrategic. It shares borders with the Central Asian Republics of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan in the west and north, Mongolia in the northeast, India’s Jammu and Kashmir in the southwest, Tibet in the southeast, and Afghanistan in the south. Covering a vast amount of land amounting to nearly one-sixth of China’s total territory, Xinjiang is its largest province with a majority of Muslims.

Continue reading “China’s oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang”

Iran’s Deal with China and its Implications for the United States

Washington is urging its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies to put an end to the standstill with Qatar. The Saudi-led blockade has now lasted for over three years, and on July 26th 2020, US Special Representative Brian Hook stated that the crisis is a threat to security in the region. While Oman and Kuwait have initiated dialogue, it has not led to a promising resolution. The US has continued its attempts to mediate the conflict to no avail, and Hook believes this failure has hindered Washington’s efforts in pressuring Iran. In recent years, the US has supported a geopolitical coalition between Israel and several GCC members against Iran and the proxy-forces it assists in Syria and Yemen. When Saudi Arabia and several other states accused Qatar of excessively close relations with Iran in 2017, they severed ties with the country. The Trump administration appears to be more concerned about Qatar’s reunification with its former allies than before, and the change in perspective comes as China concludes a $400 billion economic and security deal with Iran. It is plausible that the US aims to restore Qatar’s relationship with its neighbours to revitalize the geopolitical pressure against Iran before its deal with China comes to fruition.

Continue reading “Iran’s Deal with China and its Implications for the United States”

The Uighur Crackdown: Why Beijing’s hard-line approach is counterproductive

Historical Background 

The Xinjiang region of China has always had a distinct cultural, ethnic, and religious identity. The region feels much closer to its Central Asian neighbours than it does to the rest of China. Since its incorporation around the mid-18th century, Xinjiang has been a challenging region for the central government to administrate. Most regions in China are predominantly Han Chinese. By contrast, more than half of Xinjiang’s population of 24 million consists of Turkic Muslims. Additionally, Xinjiang covers a geographical area larger than California and Texas combined, shares borders with eight countries, and sits around 2000km away from Beijing. Xinjiang’s distinct culture, vast size and remote location have rendered it particularly vulnerable to external influences; prior rebellions continue to loom large in the minds of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials today.

Continue reading “The Uighur Crackdown: Why Beijing’s hard-line approach is counterproductive”

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.

The World Needs China More Than it Needs Us: Britain Should be Careful

The effects of Chinese stock market lows last week are illustrative of its self-sufficiency; the country no longer needs Western demand for cheap labour and manufacturing for economic growth. Instead, a centrally-regulated financial sector and vast amounts of foreign investment are the foundations for a sustainable, globalised economy. Continue reading “The World Needs China More Than it Needs Us: Britain Should be Careful”

Ambitious Realism at the Paris Climate Talks

On the morning of 12th December, President of COP21 and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius delivered a passionate speech preceding the release of the final draft of the Paris Agreement. He spoke of the need to recognise how “collective efforts are more than the sum of our individual actions”, that if nations failed to agree, “our children would neither understand nor forgive us”, and that the negotiations had produced an “ambitious and balanced” agreement that recognised the notion of climate justice. Continue reading “Ambitious Realism at the Paris Climate Talks”