Wednesday May 27, 2020


May 1, 2014

The 20th ASEAN-China Senior Officials’ Consultation on Tuesday in Pattaya, Thailand. Officials held closed door negotiations for two days to strengthen China-ASEAN cooperation in a wide range of fields, such as maritime search and rescue, security, and trade. They also discussed implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which ASEAN hopes will eventually culminate in a legal pact on resolving maritime disputes in the region. The South China Sea contains some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, richest fisheries,  and undeveloped oil and gas deposits.

The China Daily released a statement on the meeting, saying that “A strategic partnership between the two sides has become a pillar for regional peace and stability, and will be even more important in the future.”  Several ASEAN members disagree with China’s view of the relationship. To the Philippines and Vietnam, China has become aggressive and prone to coercion in its maritime disputes – not at all a beacon of “regional peace and stability.” For example, China recently used water cannons against Filipino fisherman at the disputed Scarborough Shoal and outmaneuvered boats attempting to supply a small contingent of Filipino marines on a vessel that has been grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal since 1999.

ASEAN members are split in their approach to China. No one can dispute the importance of maintaining strong economic relations with China to the region’s development. The China-ASEAN free trade zone, which came into effect four years ago, has greatly benefited the economies of ASEAN members. However, many are concerned about the potential implications of China’s rise for regional security. The split among ASEAN members is further compounded by the split within some ASEAN members. For instance, Indonesia’s foreign ministry insists that there is no territorial dispute between Indonesia and China, while the defense ministry contends that China’s competing claims to Natuna Islands have serious consequences from Indonesia’s national security. While ASEAN remains split over China, the prospects for progress on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea remains dismal.

The increasingly troublesome situation in the South China Sea casts doubts on ASEAN’s ability to influence the ambitions of rising China. Political theory argues that regional organizations have the ability to shape the rise of great powers by showing them that more can be achieved through integration and interdependence than through military posturing. On the flip side, strong regional organizations can also demonstrate that the costs of military posturing can result in  great economic and political costs to rising powers, as the EU has tried to demonstrate to Russia over the Ukraine crisis. A split ASEAN has been unable to implement any costs for China’s current trend of using force in its disputes with ASEAN neighbors. Its main response has been to promote closer relations to the US as a means to counterbalance China’s ambitions.

A split ASEAN has also allowed China to frame the South China Sea as a bilateral issue, rather than one of region-wide significance. A strong China has a lot more influence over the outcome of territorial disputes if it negotiates on a country-by-country basis with relatively-weaker ASEAN members. On the other hand, a unified ASEAN could coordinate statements regretting China’s use of force in disputes with member states and providing a reminder that China’s rise within the Asia-Pacific depends on maintaining favorable relations with Southeast Asia. It is difficult to see ASEAN coming to consensus on the matter without a strong voice among member states to guide discussion.

Region-wide ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and adopting its principles on maritime boundaries and dispute settlements offers a path for ASEAN member countries and China to move past their disputes and build a cooperative and peaceful regional order. However, some countries do not want to cede control over bilateral disputes to a multilateral body, especially if the results in doing so would not be in their favor. In 2006, China stated it would not accept nor participate in UNCLOS arbitration initiated by the Philippines. Yet, ratification of the treaty would allow ASEAN-China relations to focus on areas of mutual benefit and ensure the long-term economic interests of all parties.

For more information on ASEAN-China relations and the South China Sea disputes, please see the following news articles:

China Daily“ASEAN countries speak positively of China relations”

Economic Times“China-ASEAN pact on South China Sea region can bring some relief to India”

The Straits Times“South China Sea: Is Jakarta no longer neutral?”

Los Angeles Times“ASEAN’s challenge: A swaggering China”

Bloomberg Businessweek – “ASEAN Still Pushing for South China Sea Code of Conduct, Says Ng”” PH banking on united ASEAN vs dispute with China”

For Chinese language news on the topic, please see the sources below:

北京方网“菲军称中国南海主张是废话 准备好承担威胁后果”

新化网 –  “曝自贸区获批名单下月10日公布 南沙楼市或将引爆”

新浪网 “中国转向东南亚欲与东盟建“命运共同体””

Compiled and edited by Amanda Conklin