China’s island-building activities at the South China Sea are the biggest source of tension and uncertainty for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), according to former Foreign secretary Albert del Rosario.
Del Rosario, one of the speakers at the forum organized by the US Embassy and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) titled US-Asean Relations: Charting the Next 40 years, said Asean, which is composed of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, and the Philippines, has grown and become more coherent but its solidarity and resolve continue to be tested by tensions and challenges.
“Nowhere is this more true than in the South China Sea. Here, we see not only vital Asean interests at play, but also the rival positions of two major external powers, the United States and China,” he said.
“The greatest immediate source of regional security uncertainty is China’s expansion agenda. The strategic imperative faced by Beijing is clear: Its maritime trade depends on the South China Sea and its access to the world’s oceans is hampered by the realities of geography. Now that it has the economic and military muscle, China is attempting to get out of this geo-strategic straitjacket,” Del Rosario said.
While most countries strive for a peaceful, rules-based order in Southeast Asia, Beijing’s aggressive unilateralism in the South China Sea has put this common vision at grave risk.
“Asean must counter this challenge to its regional centrality and solidarity. Its response should have three key components: promoting the rule of law, strengthening multilateralism, and evolving as a regional body,” he said.
US Deputy Chief of Mission Michael Klecheski said maritime issues in the context of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) are their priorities. He said the State Department is keeping tabs of the Philippines’ chairmanship of the Asean this year.
Marty Natalegawa, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia pushed the forging of a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
He said Asean leaders must be decisive and “strike an equilibrium” in the region.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. earlier expressed confidence that the code will be finalized this year.
Del Rosario lamented that despite years of attempted dialogue on the part of the Philippines, Beijing has incrementally strengthened its strategic position in the South China Sea by seizing areas also claimed by Manila.
China is claiming almost the entire South China Sea, but some areas are being contested by Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Last year, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China’s maritime claims based on its nine-dash line policy were without legal foundation. The tribunal also said that Beijing’s activities within the Philippines’ two-hundred-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) infringed on Manila’s sovereignty.
“The ruling of the international arbitral tribunal not only vindicated the Philippines but, more importantly, upheld the rule of law over the waters and global commons of the South China Sea. China cannot prevent it from now being part of the universal body of international law. ASEAN and the international community as a whole should utilize the principles in the arbitral ruling to move diplomatic engagement forward. There should be no doubt about standing on these principles in finding a lasting solution,” Del Rosario said.
“The Philippines must use this opportunity to assert effective leadership on this issue this year. In seizing this opportunity, we can be confident that we will not be short-changing the many generations to come,” he added.
Del Rosario said the ruling should be made an integral part of the Code of Conduct.
“We cannot promote the rule of law while ignoring the law as it stands,” he pointed out.
He added that Asean should mitigate tensions caused by external powers by maintaining a principled neutrality, opposing the island-building in and militarization of the South China Sea, and finding common ground in economic, social and cultural fields to soften the sharpness of political and strategic rivalry.
“We need to continue to engage external powers – China, the United States, Japan, India, Europe, Australia – in the project for Asean’s continued peace and prosperity. In doing so, we should encourage them to engage each other so as to reduce mutual suspicion and to contain their rival ambitions in the region. We must discourage them from dividing us; for Asean to have centrality, it must have solidarity,” he said.
Jaime R. Pilapil