Asean can defuse China Sea standoff



THE summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) being hosted by the Philippines this year has an opportunity to defuse the escalating tension in the China Sea. With all the claimants sitting around the table some progress can be achieved if the dialogue among the participants effectively moderate behavior and expectations in the South China Sea. With a spirit of give and take, the multilateral dialogues can produce new regional initiatives that can enhance cooperation on less sensitive issues, such as the environment, scientific research and eventually cooperative resource management. This in turn can lead to the final solution of the South China Sea dispute.

The disputed zones of the South China Sea have become more intractable with parties upholding and disavowing the decision of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In view of differing interpretations of UNCLOS and to long-standing conflicting historical claims, any resolution to this problem must involve more than legal resolutions and needs a political settlement.

Claimants to the vast ocean should consider the South China Sea not as a divisive “maritime territory” waiting to be carved up, or a venue for threats and incursions, as a writer has pointed out, and instead look at it as a source of animal protein and energy, a regional maritime bridge, and an international thoroughfare to be shared by the people living around it. It should be considered as a transport route for all the world’s merchant fleets and navies so that it could indeed be a boon to a region now vacated by colonialists. In sum, the vast China Sea should not produce a wall separating neighbors but rather a bridge to connect them.

After years of talks culminating in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002, which expressed the desire of claimants to the disputed territory to exercise restraint in the conduct of activities that may complicate or escalate the disputes, it appears that the DOC has failed to restrain its signatories.

Given the above, it is humbly suggested that Asean now break out of its narrow confines and reach out to East Asia to defuse the situations. It needs to move beyond the idea of “codes of conduct,” institution- building and norm-setting, and look forward to the establishment of a more comprehensive security scenario.

No less than a new governance approach, with emphasis on participation, partnership, negotiation and consensus, represents a system leading towards a soft regional integration in Southeast Asia and to some degree within East Asia as a whole.

This cooperative approach can be termed “soft governance” which can provide a way forward more effectively than “soft regionalism,” which often involves a loose, informal integration centered on consensus, as in the Asean system.

However, it is accepted that soft integration, based on continued dialogue and consensus, can be extremely difficult to effectively apply or engage in the case where key clashes of sovereign interest apply (as in a direct attempt to solve territorial claims in the South China Sea). However, a great deal of collaboration can be made in a range of other problems of transnational environmental pollution, biodiversity protection, illegal labor flows and piracy. Starting with collaboration on data collection and scientific research, the parties could slowly move towards the agreed grounds for cooperative action, e.g. shared “environmental security protocol” etc.

Given the environmental/ecological situation, the inadequacies of charts, the absence of search and rescue or pollution response capacity, and the virtual absence of monitoring and enforcement, the stakeholders of the South China Sea could perhaps agree on soft regional governance which could be most effective in enhancing the regional move towards preventive diplomacy.

Moves by China to develop its economic and military capabilities to enhance its comprehensive national strength has raised fears among her neighbors who view this as a prelude to a long-term strategy designed to secure a stronger control of the South China Sea and its resources. This negative perception has been moderated, however, by a greater appreciation of a new phase of Chinese policy, which has begun to explore a more cooperative approach with its Southeast Asian neighbors, including Vietnam and this country. The exchange of visits by the heads of state of these countries is mute testimony to the warming of relations which has helped to decrease tension among the claimant countries.

Chinese policies towards the South China Sea seemed to be locked in the two horns of a dilemma—the desire to protect what are viewed as sovereign territories and the desire to maintain a highly cooperative “partnership” with the Southeast Asian nations. Understandably, China is eager to protect its soft underbelly in the south and to right past wrongs in what it considers a century of humiliation in the hands of Western powers. It undeniably also wants to maintain sovereignty in the face of rival superpowers, as well as the need to secure oil, gas and fishery resources. In effect, this is perceived by observers as an attempt by one “nationalistic” China seeking to re-establish its Middle Kingdom status in East Asia.

China wants to soften this image by emphasizing that Chinese foreign policy focuses on cooperation, with a disdain for superpower hegemonies and reliance on a “soft” power approach in diplomacy, alongside more forceful forms of dialogue. For China, the stability of the Asia Pacific and peaceful relations with major trading partners is the sine qua non for the modernization of China and preferable to whatever micro-gains that might be extracted from a more assertive South China Sea approach.

Given all the attending circumstances in the China Sea dispute, the complete resolution of all claims can start with confidence-building measures and creative diplomacy that can hopefully reduce tensions and significantly improve the security of the region.

Some have suggested that, at this stage in international affairs, a re-investment in comprehensive security at the regional level could well reduce certain blockages in regional cooperation and initiate a deepened round of negotiations in the Asean + 3—referring to the 10 member countries of Asean, plus their three dialogue partners of Japan, Korea and China—setting. Accordingly, it has been suggested that a comprehensive security dialogue be shifted from track 2 towards “track one-and-a-half” as a prelude to a more explicit role in Asean within a wider dialogue process.

Here, Asean indeed needs to break out of its cocoon and reach out to East Asia and the wider Asia Pacific. Not that this idea is a novel one. The concept of Neo-Asianism, with the emergence of Asian consciousness and identity followed the departure of the colonial masters. Indeed, an “Asian Renaissance” is one which Lee Kwan Yew described as a dream that has never faded away. It will be recalled that as early as the 1970s the South Koreans had presented the concept of an Asian Common Market. This was followed by the Japanese with its modern version of an Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. Not to be forgotten was Dr. Mahathir’s call for an East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) in the 1990s.

The Asian monetary crisis in the late 1990s which saw the impotence of the Asean, APEC and the IMF for their failure to come to the rescue of beleaguered Asian economies triggered the Ching Mai initiative of late which showed the potential of an Asean + 3 (APT) to make up for the shortcomings relying solely on international groupings and institutions. It also bolstered confidence that regionalism albeit expanded to include APT can do the trick.

Combined with the positive shift towards cooperation in China’s engagement with its periphery, as indicated by its seemingly successful projection of soft power in the region, there is now a real possibility that a wider cooperative agenda can begin within the limits of objectives set out by the APT framework.

A deepened East Asian cooperation with Asean offers the best arena for enhancing comprehensive security at the regional level. Asean itself and an Asean-Plus grouping may be more effective levels for building convergence on patterns of governance and a genuine move towards comprehensive security beyond the foreign policies of individual states. Indeed, a regional security area that could lay the foundation for a widened regional society with Chinese, South Korean and Japanese commitment could be more effective in securing a zone of peace in the region.

Indeed, an APT framework could be deepened to seek regional solutions to outstanding problems. The methods used should be based on “soft” governance principles, rather than on coercive rule enforcement, and in contrast to narrow bargaining over national interests. It could start by tackling those areas that do not invoke mutually incompatible claims and build confidence in this new framework. The problems of regional piracy and environmental pollution in the South China Sea could be low-threat starting points, points noted as far back as the 1992 Asean Declaration on the South China Sea. There could be cooperation over the existential threat of piracy as a starter. This could be followed by cooperation in the management and protection of people around the area who are periodically ravaged by typhoons, floods, pollution, and depletion of fish stocks, piracy and war.

As we write, this country is seeking the help of both China and the United States to combat sea pirates in the light of apparent militant Islamist attacks on international shipping. An existential threat to this country and its neighbors are possible attacks along the Sibutu Passage between Sabah and southern Philippines. This deepwater channel is used by 13,000 vessels annually and offers a short cut between Australia and the East Asian manufacturing giants–China, Japan and South Korea.

Over time deepened commitments to regional comprehensive security will help to reduce threats—social and economic—in the face of a turbulent global system, lessen the arms race and make disputed claims in the South China Sea opportunities for cooperation rather than conflict.

For this, the joint cooperation between Asean and China, Japan and South Korea in areas of comprehensive security would be essential. Japan’s offer to help improve coast guard operations in Southeast Asia, based on its concern over piracy against Japanese ships and major oil or LNG carriers, is a promising sign of a more proactive stance. For this to happen, there will have to be more cooperation between China and Japan on security issues. This could only happen if both countries bury the hatchet, so to speak.

Chinese concerns over sustained economic development, over the future of Taiwan, of expansion in the South China Sea, over defense modernization and increased power projection abilities, and a latent containment policy by a US coalition, has in the past prevented China from providing regional leadership.

Today, however, China may have stopped wailing over its century of humiliation as it braces itself as a great power preparing to be more assertive. The One Road, One Belt (OBOR) initiative and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) is China’s attempt to convince its neighbors that it has no intention of bullying them, even after it becomes economically stronger.

The involvement of both China and Japan in Asean designs is a healthy development in that the process is likely to produce a check and balance to eliminate some of the risks of either of these great powers gaining too much unilateral influence. Indeed, the quest for a “stable and legitimate” regional order, linking different integrative circles at the levels of Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Asia Pacific can only be the best situation for Asean.

Moving away from the geopolitical issues and going into the geo-economic—in the absence of the doomed Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative of the US—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership proposal of China, plus her landmark program, the OBOR—which promises to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, e.g. railways, ports and power grids across Asia, Africa and Europe, to be underwritten by the AIIB—should be the centerpiece in any Asean + 3 dialogue, one which would could place in the backburner the raging controversy surrounding claims in the South China Sea which can now be discussed in a more congenial atmosphere après the above confidence-building measures.

Let’s face it, the sustainable development of the Asean does not lie in its pulling itself by its own bootstraps, so to speak, but by engaging geopolitically and geo-economically its larger periphery controlled by economic and political superpowers in East Asia and the Asia Pacific. The fact is the Asean intra-regional trade is much smaller than its interregional trade and its security relies mostly on a modus vivendi with the superpowers.


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