CAN ASEAN PREVENT THE INEVITABLE IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA?

The  26th  ASEAN  Summit  concluded  in  Kuala  Lumpur  on  27  April  2015  with  the ministers   once   again   ‘sharing   concerns’   over   the   outstanding   maritime   territorial disputes  in  the  South  China  Sea  (SCS).  In  acknowledgment  of  certain  member  states’ alarm  at  China’s  expanding  footprint  in  the  disputed  island  groups,  a  reference  was made   in   the   Chairman’s   Statement   this   year   to   the   “land   reclamation   being undertaken…which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and  stability.”  The  statement  is  seen  as  an  emerging  consensus  within  the  ASEAN towards  common  security  challenges  rooted  in  the  SCS  issues.  Given  that  the  2012

Phnom Penh Summit did not result in a communique at all, a first in ASEAN’s history, is this fresh  ‘rebuke’  aimed  at  China  coherent  with the regional  body’s desired means  of addressing  the  situation?  Will  ASEAN  be  able  to  work  on  newer  areas  of  possible coordination as mooted by some analysts?

A Multilateral Non-Starter

The  ASEAN  members  advocate  full  implementation  of  the  2002  Declaration  on  the Code  of  Conduct  of  Parties  in  the  South  China  Sea  (DoC)  in  accordance  with  the principles of peaceful co-existence to ensure stability in the region. Their adopted means of  dialogue  are  channelled  through  the  ASEAN-China  relations  framework  and  other multilateral fora. However, the nature of maritime disputes in the SCS is such that both bilateral and multilateral approaches have failed to take off thus far. Briefly put, China currently claims sovereignty over island groups spanning the entire SCS and Southeast Asian states too stake claim to individual island groups and are entangled with China in conflicting claims of sovereignty and sovereign rights.

Although  the  DoC  was  reached  with  hopes  of  multilateral  conflict  resolution showing  the  way  forward,  China  has  been  accused  of  intransigence  on  actionable strategies and preventive diplomacy. In effect, China does not want to ‘internationalize’

the disputes and rejects any negotiation centred on the concerns of claimants that may prove  unfavourable  in  the  end.  The  absence  of  any  significant  headway  at  a  direct bilateral level has coincided with hostile flare-ups between the Chinese maritime forces and the Southeast Asian claimants in many instances.

With the multilateral approach rendered muted, the more directly involved and affected ASEAN member states have explored individual strategies, and have not shied away from military capability accretion or alliance-building in the recent  years. Land reclamation in the SCS, the most controversial even though not an entirely new aspect of the disputes in the year 2015, also cannot be attributed to China alone. All claimants except Brunei have been reported to carry out habitational development and if Chinese reports  are  also  to  be  cited,  ‘fortification’  activities,  in  the  disputed  Spratly  island group.  More  importantly,  the  DoC  implicitly  cautions  against  influencing  the  natural and  legal  status  of  geographical  features  in  the  SCS  pending  a  comprehensive  and durable settlement of the disputes. Since the determination of sovereignty claims have to precede a lasting settlement, any land reclamation can be justified depending on the side in the dispute one chooses to argue from.

The greater cause for concern is the potential of these artificial structures at sea to be used as military installations by the claimant states. Presently, the situation is rife with  a  security  dilemma  which  mutually  aggravates  and  further  fuels  the  race  to reclaim  in  the  SCS.  The  ASEAN  has  not  been  an  effective  platform  to  address  these hurdles and has not only failed to get China to commit to a concrete framework or even sustained dialogue towards a settlement but has also remained a divided house within itself.

Negotiating without a Code of Conduct

The haste with which China has pursued its strategic ends has shaken the cooperative face  of  its  ‘New  Security  Concept’  for  Asia.  As  China  adapts  towards  a  global  posture, both the scale of  its geopolitical  ambition and the huge hard power differential  that  it enjoys, allows Beijing to ignore or circumvent a weak neighbourhood’s woes. Thus, the Chinese position on the disputes is not likely to transform anytime soon.

Unsurprisingly,   the   ASEAN’s   verbal   signalling   does   not   cause   a   lot   of consternation in Beijing. The SCS disputes do not impinge upon the whole of Southeast Asia  and  has  only  a  moderate  effect  on  some  of  the  regional  states’  outlook  towards China.  Little  surprise  then  that  it  remains  a  tall  order  to  get  all  ASEAN  members  to stake their relations with China for the interests of a few. For these reasons, the Code of Conduct  has  remained  elusive  for  over  a  decade  as  the  claimants  persistently  move away from a framework for conflict prevention. It is futile to reiterate urgency for the Code  until  the  states  party  to  the  disputes,  including  China,  are  satisfied  with  their current  positions  and  see  them  as  positions  of  strength.  In  a  repeated  game  of  non- cooperation  where  each  side  views  the  other’s  actions  as  cheating,  the  spiral  of retaliation becomes inexorable.

The   recommendations   from   some   observers   for   coordinated   patrolling   by Southeast Asian claimants in maritime zones currently claimed by China is unlikely to be a viable option in the short term in view of the existing military power gap between Beijing  and  the  other  claimants.  In  turn,  it  carries  the  added  risk  of  degrading  the security environment  before a stable status quo is obtained. Another view is that  the ASEAN  must  first  reach  a  binding  code  of  conduct  among  its  own  members  before persuading  China  to  show  interest.  This  could  possibly  achieve  some  progress  in stabilizing  the  status  quo  and  could  be  further  bolstered  by  diplomatic  efforts  from concerned states like Malaysia and Singapore to get to a non-partisan framework  for dialogue  where  China’s  concerns  are  also  considered.  There  should  be  significant grounds for mutual understanding over the region’s extremely sensitive non-traditional security aspects such as degradation of the marine environment and loss of biodiversity on account of the detrimental consequences of land reclamation.

About the Author 

The  author  is  a  Research  Associate,  National  Maritime  Foundation  (NMF),  New  Delhi.  The  views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at divyank.chaudhary@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

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