Last week, the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN and its dialogue partners gathered at Naypyidaw, Myanmar, for the 47th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting followed by the 21st ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and 4th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meetings (EAS). One of the recurrent aspects of these meetings was the focus on the developments that have shaped the South China Sea (SCS) conflict. As divergent opinions arise and positions hard-line into deeper divides, the issues relating to the stand-off in the SCS are likely to emerge as the key challenge for the ASEAN countries, particularly in managing their relations and engagement with major powers in the region.
Almost from 2010, the SCS issue has been at the forefront of the challenges in the wider region. China’s posturing in the region has been increasing with its belligerence at critical intervals to find where the weakest link in the region lies. From April 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident and the July 2012 situation when the ASEAN did not issue a joint communique, till the more recent tirade over China’s installation of the HYSY981 oil rig close to Paracel islands, incidents in the SCS have been major red flags. Chinese posturing in the latest stand-off in May included the moving of its oil rig to what it sees as part of the nine-dash line territorial claims, while Vietnam identifies the Paracels as part of its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). With this latest altercation between China and Vietnam, this issue has emerged as the core of the ASEAN’s challenges.
Much of this is related to the US re-engagement with the region. The US’ interpretation on China’s of China, particularly in light of its own close relations with the Philippines in particular and Southeast Asia in general, critically re-alters the dynamics of the SCS dispute. The US’ emphasis on its national interest in preserving the rights of freedom of navigation is critical and has been gaining some support over the past four years. Furthermore, smaller ASEAN countries are still trying to engage with regional major powers via different strategies that will allow them to maximise their own interests in the possible event of a stand-off among the bigger powers.
The US’ recent call for a freeze on China’s construction activities in terms of expansion via dredging clearly indicates the heightened tensions. China has been carrying out these activities particularly in the territories that fall under Beijing’s sovereign claims. Over the course of last week’s meetings, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, proposed freezing of activities – like seizing uninhabited islands and dredging activities – that change the status quo in the SCS. This found support from the US’ long standing ally in the region – the Philippines. Simultaneously, other ASEAN countries who are claimants to the dispute have also supported this initiative even though China has not agreed to these demands.
The ASEAN for its part seems to be divided on the question of the SCS issue where claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam are looking for stronger support within multilateral bodies such as the EAS and the ARF, while other members such as Cambodia and Myanmar simply prefer to keep mum on the matter. Among other ASEAN countries, Indonesia has actively been advocating the need for a more concerted effort to address issues of rival claims to the territorial extents of the SCS. Indonesia supports the move towards a more binding Code of Conduct (CoC) which needs to be addressed, since the decision to have a non-binding Declaration on the Code of Conduct was made in November 2002.
China for its part has been clear that the move towards a resolution of the SCS issue will be dependent upon the claimant countries and not on the good offices of any outside power. This is clearly seen as targeting the `intent’ of the US. China’s preference for the use of bilateral mechanisms that are in place, instead of using multilateral mechanisms to arrive at a solution, clearly tips its balance towards a more Sino-centric solution to the problem. Additionally, China has also agreed to negotiation via the ASEAN to effectively resolve the issue, which could indicate its preference for keeping the US outside this debate.
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s assertions on the need to resolve the matter through the use of international arbitration is critical for the member countries of the ASEAN. The relevance of endorsing a solution that abides by the UNCLOS will critically impact the dispute. China and the US’ varying interpretations on the UNCLOS will have deeper implications for the region. China’s relations with the region – which has, since the 1990s, been carefully built towards greater integration with the ASEAN as a credible partner for its economic growth – should not be held hostage to the growing tensions in the SCS. China’s posturing in the region is a critical factor that has pushed forward the agenda of looking for a credible resolution to this conflict.