THE foreign ministers of China and the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are expected to endorse the draft framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea at the post-ministerial conference that kicks off in Manila on August 2 (Voice of American, July 25, 2017). This will bring to a conclusion 15 years of talks on developing a code of conduct founded on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that the ASEAN members and China signed in November 2002.
Last week, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi announced that the Philippines and China planned to conduct joint oil exploration activities in the South China Sea. Wang said: “Now Philippines demands an energy supply to boost its economy and cooperation with China serves as a rescue” (South China Morning Post, July 26).
Despite these pronouncements, Cayetano said that consultations would still be held with other Asean member countries as “unilateral action by anybody leads to destabilization.” President Rodrigo Duterte wasn’t joking when he said that China’s President Xi Jinping warned him that Beijing would go to war if the Philippines insists on unilaterally drilling in disputed areas.
Vietnam has learned the hard way that unilateral exploration in contested parts of the South China Sea is indeed a dangerous game. A few days ago, the Vietnamese government suspended gas exploration activities in the Spratlys as China threatened to attack—yes, threatened to attack— Vietnamese bases in the area if drilling wasn’t stopped. The spot where Spanish oil company Repsol was drilling for Vietnam is also being claimed by China. The Chinese rights are currently held by a Hong Kong-listed company whose board of directors counts two senior members of the Chinese Communist Party (BBC).
China, incidentally, has a joint development agreement with Japan in an area in the East China Sea claimed by both countries. In 2008 the two countries forged an agreement to jointly explore potential oil, gas and methane hydrate deposits in a part of the contested area. However, Japan is accusing China of undertaking unilateral drilling operations, in violation of the agreement. According to a 2016 report of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “China has at least 12 operational drilling rigs” in the area (CNN, February 7, 2017).
Prashanth Parameswaran in a July 27 article in The Diplomat warns the Philippines against entering into any joint development agreement with China. He cites a case from 2005 when the Philippine National Oil Company and the China Offshore Oil Cooperation entered into a joint maritime seismic undertaking agreement. This agreement was viewed as part of Arroyo administration’s deals with China, including the controversial NBN-ZTE deal. Reading Ernest Z. Bower’s “Secrecy in the South China Sea” (CSIS, July 27, 2010), one gets a feeling of déjà vu: Deteriorating relationship with the US, China comes to the rescue with generous official aid and business deals, a deal on joint development of South China Sea energy resources included.
The South China Sea with its vast reserves of gas and oil and rich fishing grounds connects most of the Southeast Asian region. Even countries with no direct claims have an interest that peace and stability are maintained, and that resources will be exploited in the most sustainable and fair manner possible. Of the Asean member countries, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam have direct claims in the South China Sea. Asean members occasionally clash with each other over competing claims. Recently, the Indonesian navy fired warning shots to drive Vietnamese fishermen out of Indonesian waters (Southeast Asia Globe, July 26, 2017).
The South China Sea poses a great challenge for Asean as it celebrates its 50th founding anniversary this year. ASEAN’s 10 nations and 638 million people are literally scattered on thousands of islands, representing diverse cultures, history, faiths, and systems of government. Uniting Asean to speak with one voice, as China is playing its divide-and-rule game, is no easy task.
Exploring, developing and utilizing the oil, gas, and other energy resources in the South China Sea jointly might be the only way to maintain peace and at the same time make the most of nature’s bounty. However, Asean countries must act as one or lose relevance as the fate of the South China Sea is the biggest single issue facing the region. Joint development with China should be in accordance with a code of conduct adopted by the entire Asean. Member countries should set aside short-term individual interests in the pursuit of the long-term interest of all. This would strengthen Asean regionally and globally and, hopefully, prevent the current disputes from escalating.