Thursday, November 12, 2015


It’s too early for the Philippines to take any victory laps over the recent Hague international tribunal ruling regarding claims filed against China over disputed areas in the South China Sea.

South China Sea observers believe that the decision offers the Philippines valuable leverage in its relations with China, but it may not be used. What is clear is that the Philippines needs to win over support for its cause among the majority of 10-nation members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbors: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

“Manila still must maintain international support for its cause so that it can translate this legal victory into substantive political pressure,” says Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea (UP-IMLOS).

The ruling, an international blow to China’s sovereignty claims, ushers in a timely new ASEAN paradigm for engagement with Beijing. The upcoming 27th Annual ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur on November 18-22 will provide a convenient venue for members to strengthen the capacity of member nations to engage China about its territory reclamation expansion, to reinforce codes of conduct, to guarantee the safety of fishermen, to restate the need for access to freedom of the seas, and to address the obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Some international legal experts believe that China is vulnerable right now to giving away concessions to forestall another legal challenge. The summit may signal how other ASEAN members communicate with China to take advantage of that before they consider launching their own litigation.

The protracted disputes over sovereignty claims have sparked fears that it could ignite Asia’s next major conflict. China’s move to undertake massive construction to transform at least seven shoals and reefs into islands in the roiling South China Sea’s Spratly Islands have ratcheted up tensions.

The challenge facing the region is how to avoid any resort to violence among armed forces of the various claimant nations. So far the ASEAN bloc continues to seek a geopolitical balance between Washington and Beijing.

ASEAN is divided on China’s expanding footprint in the South China Sea. China is by far the region’s major trading partner and member nations all enjoy the economic benefits as a result of robust trade with Beijing. For the past decade, China has polished its image as the primary benefactor to its smaller neighbors and Mandarin policy shapers have strategically weakened any unified negative response to its South China Sea expansion.

The Philippines and Vietnam are entangled in territorial conflicts with China in the contested region and have subsequently sought out military support from the United States. On the surface, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore maintain neutrality, while the remaining members — Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia — are signatories to most China initiatives.

“Singapore is the only country that has nothing to do with the disputes in South China Sea, Malaysia is one of the claimant states, and increasingly, it found that its fishermen are being pushed out from South China Sea, in areas like Luconia shoals,” says Zhang Hongzhou, a research fellow in the China Program at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

This asymmetry of power-relations between ASEAN and China reveals a deeper chasm and makes it nearly impossible for ASEAN to present a unified response.

Despite China’s President Xi Jinping’s rhetoric about cooperation and partnership, his recent gesture of placing a wreath at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a part of Beijing’s calculated charm offensive, was lost on many Vietnamese, who are deeply wary of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, especially the attacks on their fishermen.

The tensions between China and Vietnam are evident among Vietnam’s senior Party and government leaders. While the two countries share the same communist ideology, there is growing consensus within Vietnam’s leadership to hedge its strategy by not rebuking Chinese actions but rather by forging closer security relations with the United States and regional outside powers.

None of the member nations want the region to become a battleground between the United States and China. The U.S. decision to send the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer challenged China’s claim to a 12-mile territorial limit around Subi Reef in the Spratlys. This American power resolve has prompted both Indonesia and Malaysia to begin a turn from neutrality to measured dissent toward Chinese buildup on the reclaimed islands.

ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh has bluntly criticized Beijing “for eroding the very trust and confidence between Asean and China.” He cited China’s reclamation activities, illegal fishing bans and general harassment of fishermen in the South China Sea as central issues.

Despite the recent encouraging gesture to establish an ASEAN-China hotline to address and manage maritime issues, the association has failed to offer any consensus response to the formidable Chinese challenges in the South China Sea. Moreover, Southeast Asian leaders appear to have obliterated “the China threat” from their diplomatic rhetoric and replaced it with the “China challenge” in an effort to dispel any Chinese perception that ASEAN may ‘gang up’ against the Middle Kingdom.

Although Malaysia, this year’s summit host, enjoys close economic ties with China, it does not want to find itself in the same position as Cambodia did in 2012, when China ably influenced the agenda and blocked the inclusion of any mention of the South China Sea maritime disputes in the joint announcement at the end of the meeting, resulting in the organization’s failure to reach a consensus on territorial disputes.

Is it possible that the ASEAN deep divisions may close and result in a unified, open criticism and diplomatic push back on China’s land reclamations?

James Borton is a faculty associate at the Walker Institute at the University of South Carolina and a non-resident fellow at the Saigon Center for International Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.

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