Opportunities for ASEAN to uphold its role in the South China Sea

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Opportunities for ASEAN to uphold its role in the South China SeaChina’s tactic of capitalizing on the Covid-19 pandemic to push up coercion and intimidation against its neighbouring countries to establish total control and monopoly in the South China Sea forces the US to adjust its South China Sea approach in two ways (i) increase the presence of US navy and air force in the South China Sea; and (ii) adopt a clearer and firmer position on China’s claims on the basis of international law.

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement on July 13th 2020 marked a milestone in the changes of the US’ South China Sea approach and was in favour of South China Sea littoral states. International analysts opine that such changes will open opportunities for ASEAN countries to fulfil its role in South China Sea dispute settlement because the US position is now convergent with that of the South China Sea littoral states in ASEAN. The convergent position is shown in four aspects:

First, Washington made its position clear on maritime disputes and rights over waters and seabed in the South China Sea.

Second, Washington persistently supported the Tribunal’s Ruling of 2016 that rejected China’s “nine-dash line” claim.

Third, Washington defined the status of features like the Luconia Shoal, James Shoal (off Malaysia), and Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam) as natural submerged features, therefore could not be claimed by any states.

Four, Washington utilized the critical term “unlawful” instead of other words, such as “destabilized” or “coercive” that have been used frequently by the US before, to describe China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Mr Pompeo also stated that the US “soft stance” on China has ended. He further emphasized that China had no legal foundation to unilaterally impose its will on the South China Sea and called for other states’ actions to contain China and prevent Beijing from taking more territories, asserting that the South China Sea was not China’s maritime empire. Mr Pompeo pointed out the deceitful nature of Chinese leaders and asked other states “not to trust what Chinese leaders say but what they do”, which resulted in its policy shift from “trust but verify” to “distrust and verify”.

In company with the US, Australia submitted its note verbale to the United Nations (UN) to reject China’s claims in the South China Sea. Notably, at the 30th Australia-US Ministerial Consultation, both states reaffirmed the central role of the Indo-Pacific in the Australia-US alliance. Both the US and Australia emphasized the necessity for them to join hands and work with others, namely ASEAN, India, Japan, Korea, as well as partners of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance to reinforce connectivity structure of allies and partners for the maintenance of a comprehensively secured and prosperous, rules-based region.

In the long run, the US’ and Australia’s actions will make China pay and concomitantly draw attention from the international community, creating favourable condition for ASEAN to perform its role in addressing South China Sea issues. Furthermore, as encountering tremendous pressure from Beijing, ASEAN countries, especially South China Sea littoral states seem to keep a close watch to the upcoming moves of the US and its allies regarding the protection of international law-based order in the South China Sea.

First, they expect that the US and other countries to have more robust diplomatic responses and castigate either China's infiltration into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or harassment of oil exploitation and fishing activities of its neighbouring South China Sea littoral states.

Second, they also hope the US would raise China’s unlawful activities at different international multilateral platforms of the UN, G7, or G20,… instead of limiting it to just the East Asian Summit (EAS).

Third, the US may implement more measures to impede China economically. For example, by declaring some actions of China unlawful, the US equipped itself with sufficient foundations for imposing sanction on several Chinese firms and organizations undertaking illegal activities in the South China Sea. Specifically, the US sanctioned 24 Chinese firms partaking in island-building in the South China Sea.

However, whether ASEAN would be able to make good use of this opportunity to prevent the expansion of China depends on the bloc itself. ASEAN encompasses ten different countries with diverse interests in the South China Sea and simultaneously under great pressure. Most of ASEAN countries, especially mainland states, depend largely on the economic and trade relations with Beijing. Therefore, in order to achieve a high-level consensus on South China Sea issues, ASEAN members must reduce their dependence on China by boosting their own economic growth and this is not easy.

The tendency to restructure the global supply chain, which causes many enterprises to move their production line from China to Southeast Asian countries, provides a favourable condition for ASEAN countries to “decouple from China” and develop an economy that is less dependent on it. Many, such as the US or Japan, have already introduced specific assistances to support their own enterprises in moving factories out of China. If ASEAN is able to make good use of this chance to develop a “less-dependent on China” economy, it might be able to adopt a more assertive stance on the South China Sea.

Recently, ASEAN states have reached a higher level of consensus on South China Sea issues reflected in the Chairman’s Statement of the 36th ASEAN Summit. The statement demonstrated ASEAN’s concern over complex development and increasing militarisation in the South China Sea. It also asserted ASEAN collective position that all disputes in the South China Sea must be settled by peaceful means in conformity with UNCLOS 1982 principles. However, observers believe that ASEAN states remain reluctant despite the US’ recent firm and assertive position on South China Sea matters.

To encourage ASEAN to take up a stronger stance on the South China Sea issues, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made calls with Foreign Ministers of five South China Sea littoral states in ASEAN, namely: (i) Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on March 8th when both countries asserted their collective respect for international law in the South China Sea, and underscored the significance of cooperating and ensuring safety in the region; (ii) Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishman also on March 8th when Singapore asserted its respect for freedom of navigation and aviation rights, its support for peace and stability maintenance in the South China Sea, and its hope for peaceful dispute settlement in the South China Sea that must be in line with international law including the UNCLOS 1982; (iii) the 2nd Foreign Minister of Brunei Erywan Yusof on April 8th either when Mr. Pompeo affirmed the US’ support for South China Sea littoral states in defending sovereign rights and interests that were in sync with international law, and rejected China’s coercion to boost its illegal claims in the South China Sea; (iv) Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on August 6th when Malaysia underlined that disputes must be settled by peaceful means, on the basis of international law, especially the UNCLOS 1982; (v) Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh also on August 6th when Mr. Pompeo affirmed that the US supported Southeast Asian countries in seeking for sovereign rights and interests on seas in line with international law.

Observers believe that the US’ proactive encouragement to ASEAN to take up a stronger collective stance on the South China Sea issues, which demonstrated the US consistency in fulfilling its commitments to the region, will help ASEAN be more courageous in countering China in South China Sea issues. Against this backdrop, opportunities are opened for ASEAN to uphold its central role in tackling the South China Sea issues. What should be done by ASEAN to make good use of these opportunities?

First, South China Sea claimants, i.e. the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia must maintain their crucial role in forging a consensus within ASEAN regarding South China Sea issues. An advantage is that all the above mentioned countries share a common viewpoint that the South China Sea disputes must be settled on the basis of UNCLOS principles. In the last nine months, they have submitted to the UN 10 notes verbale in total (Malaysia: 2, the Philippines 3, Vietnam 3, and Indonesia 2) to reject China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. After a long time of silence, Brunei finally raised its voice in a statement released on July 20th, asserting that the South China Sea issues must be addressed on the basis of the UNCLOS 1982 and other regulations and principles of international law. The fact that half of ASEAN member released official statements on South China Sea issues is a critical foundation to promote consensus within ASEAN. Some experts and researchers believe that these five states should form a mutual mechanism for consultation on South China Sea issues before bringing up the issues to the entire ASEAN. Besides, they should take advantage of the role of Thailand, which is an ally of both the US and Singapore and has significant interests in the sea routes passing the South China Sea.

Second, ASEAN should air its criticism against China’s irrational claims and actions at a greater level at the UN. In its capacity as the ASEAN Chair in 2020 and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), Vietnam has presented the blueprint for UN-ASEAN meetings. Such mechanism should be maintained, and South China Sea issues must be included. Similar mechanisms between ASEAN and other international organizations or regional organizations, for example, the European Union (EU), should be established. On the other hand, ASEAN must acquire more substantial consensus on South China Sea issues grounded in the “rule of law” at such for a as APEC, ASEM, or NAM meetings to put pressure on Beijing. ASEAN countries must take advantage of the international community to force China to soon conclude a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) and adhere to the PCA’s final award.

Third, South China Sea littoral states must increase their defence capability for self-protection. The international community is now ready to assist ASEAN countries in building their own maritime defence capability. This is also an opportunity for the South China Sea littoral states to strengthen their maritime management and law enforcement capability as well as their defence capability by purchasing modern weapons and technologies.

Moreover, ASEAN countries have been encouraged to join in the naval drills with the US, Japan, Australia, and India. The QUAD may expand its scope for operation involving ASEAN and South Korea. Such move will help contain China, prevent China's expansion in the South China Sea, and fortify the maintenance of freedom and openness in the Indo-Pacific region based on international law and standard, as well as protect the rules-based order in the South China Sea.

Fourth, ASEAN must foster solidarity, independence, and self-reliance in making decisions without leaving any of its member states under China’s coercion. However, this remains a tough mission for ASEAN as China utilizes all means to entice those with underdeveloped economy, especially ASEAN mainland countries that have no direct interest in the South China Sea.

It is necessary to clarify the importance of avoiding dependence on China among ASEAN member states so that they are aware of the cost for following China and falling into its debt-trap. This aims at preventing similar 2012 incident when Cambodia hampered the adoption of an ASEAN joint statement because it was pressured by China. As a result, ASEAN failed to issue the AMM Joint Communiqué.

Fifth, ASEAN must get the most of the international community’s support to reach an agreement that the South China Sea is a sea of common interests for all ASEAN countries, which should be shown on the official map of each country. It would be marvellous if ASEAN member states achieved consensus on their own specific name for the South China Sea, such as the Southeast Asian Sea.

This would have significant implications to reject China’s claims on historic rights and its “nine-dash line”. China hopes its arbitrary arguments would one day be accepted by the international community.

Sixth, Washington’s goal is to change Beijing’s behaviour. To this end, it needs the support of others. ASEAN must support this because only when Beijing make changes to its behaviour, would the South China Sea be an area of peace and stability. ASEAN collectively, and its members individually do not want to take sides. However, joining the US and other states to protect justice and international law in the South China Sea is an undeniable necessity. Without the support of ASEAN countries, the US would hardly get to its goal.