THE lack of unity among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in stopping China’s continuing construction work in disputed waters is increasing the conflict in the already tense West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), legal experts said.
They urged the 10-member group to show unity and might against China as it continues to defy the ruling of an international arbitral tribunal on the case filed by the Philippines against Beijing.
Last month, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based in The Hague ruled that China has no historical right to claim much of the West Philippine Sea, invalidating Beijing’s nine-dash-line on which it based it maritime claim.
In a joint communiqué during a meeting in Laos late in July, Asean foreign ministers reaffirmed their respect and commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight in the West Philippine Sea as provided by international law but stopped short of acknowledging the tribunal’s ruling or affirming acceptance of the arbitral award.
“If China actually acts in ways and actions that are clearly in contradiction with the terms of the award, then of course it opens up possible actions that require other countries that might,” Prof. Herman Joseph Kraft of the University of the Philippines-Diliman’s political science department said.
“Like I said, act or back that incidence. The actions that have been taken in the past weeks result in unpredictability, that’s where possible incidence may arise,” he added.
Prof. Michael Heazle of Griffith University’s school of government and international relations in Australia said Asean member states should cooperate and provide a “unified opposition” to any further claims to maritime rights that China may make.
He warned that if Asean will allow its division to continue, it will invite major powers to come into play and that will only cause “greater tension.”
“If that kind of unified opposition and support is not forthcoming, it creates the more dangerous situation because that means that external powers to the dispute, such as the United States and potentially its allies, will become more directly involved,” Heazle said.
“It’s very clear that if we want to keep the situation from escalating into greater tension between the great powers, we need to see a far more united political front among the Asean states,” he added.
Dindo Manhit, president of think tank Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute (ADRi), said Asean’s failure to present a united front against China at the recent Asean summit was a “lost opportunity.”
“As with everything in Asean, countries win some and lose some. It’s hard to say what the Philippines gained, but it is clear what the region lost: an opportunity to speak decisively against the clearly coercive diplomacy of its larger neighbor,” he said.
But Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. maintained that the regional bloc’s joint communiqué was “a triumph not just for the Philippines, but also for the entire Asean as it underscores Asean’s solidarity, centrality and unity on this approach.”