ASEAN unity and the threat of Chinese expansion

Are China’s expanding territorial claims in the South China Sea going to bring Southeast Asian countries together?

China's advancement in the South China Sea has fuelled tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines [EPA]

Shortly after US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Asia, where he underscored Washington’s commitment to remain as an anchor of stability in the region, a new crisis erupted in the South China Sea. Pressing its territorial claims in adjacent waters, China dispatched HYSY981, a state-of-the-art deep-sea rig, which belongs to the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), well into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Chinese officials tried to justify the move by describing it as a natural progression of CNOOC’s surveillance operations in the contested waters, but most analysts believe that political considerations, as opposed to commercial calculations, were behind China’s latest territorial manoeuvre. The HYSY981 was reportedly accompanied by an armada of Chinese para-military vessels.

Vietnam responded in kind by dispatching around 30 naval vessels to fend off what it saw as a de facto Chinese occupation of hydrocarbon-rich waters claimed by Hanoi. It didn’t take long before Hanoi shared a video alleging Chinese harassment of Vietnamese naval vessels. Soon, large-scale anti-Chinese protests engulfed Vietnam, leading to massive destruction of factories owned by Chinese and Taiwanese investors, and precipitating an exodus of thousands of Chinese citizens.

Meanwhile, the Philippine marine forces apprehended 11 Chinese fishermen on charges of illegal capture of endangered species, and released photos alleging Chinese construction activities on the disputed Johnson South Reef in the Spratly chain of islands.

With Beijing openly challenging Washington’s commitment to ensure freedom of navigation in international waters, the US State Department directly blamed China for sparking renewed tensions in the South China Sea. Concomitantly, up to 5,500 US and Filipino troops participated in the annual “Balikatan” joint-military exercise in the South China Sea – underscoring deepening Philippine-US military cooperation amid rising Chinese territorial assertiveness.

The dangerous uptick in regional geopolitical tensions coincided with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Myanmar, the current chair of the regional body. Worried about the implications of ongoing territorial spats, the ASEAN expressed its “serious concern” and called for the resolution of maritime disputes in accordance to international law.

Long dismissed as a feeble regional body, the ASEAN has nevertheless emerged as a critical component of any prospective resolution of the South China Sea disputes in a peaceful, diplomatic fashion. But China’s immense – and growing – economic influence over its Southeast Asian neighbours will continue to complicate efforts at establishing a unified ASEAN position on the issue.

A dynamic backyard

The establishment of the ASEAN was driven by the exigencies of the Cold War, with the West and its regional allies aggressively resisting communist expansion. Beyond serving as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, there were also endogenous motivations in play: Leading Southeast Asian countries sought to put aside their territorial disputes and political differences in order to focus on nation-building and regional integration.

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Inspired by a burgeoning process of regional integration in Europe, Southeast Asian leaders opted for a “soft” model of regional integration, serving as a platform for confidence-building among members and strategic coordination on issues of common concern. The founding members placed great emphasis on consensus-building and consultation.

There was, however, minimal investment in the bureaucratic capabilities of the ASEAN per se, with member countries opting for organisational flexibility, symbolic cooperation, norm advocacy, and institutionalised dialogue.

Given their considerable divergence in economic competitiveness and political outlook, the establishment of a supranational organisation – similar to the European Union – was largely out of the question.

The end of Cold War precipitated the progressive expansion of the ASEAN’s membership, with former communist countries in Indo-China welcomed as organic members of a greater Southeast Asian community. Riding on a decades-long economic boom, trade and investment considerations fuelled a sustained process of regional integration, as member countries – new and old – relaxed barriers on transport of goods, labour and services among themselves.

Successfully avoiding war among its members, the crowning achievement of the ASEAN, however, was the gradual integration of post-Mao China into the regional order. Throughout the 1990s, a rapidly industrialising China actively courted the ASEAN’s favour. Beijing was eager to reduce its international isolation and gain access to basic commodities. Southeast Asian states such as Singapore and Thailand, in turn, served as diplomatic bridges between Beijing and the broader Asia-Pacific neighbourhood. Under the aegis of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN also sought to mediate relations among great powers of Asia, namely Japan, China, Russia and the US.

The inflection point

From the 1990s to mid-2000s, there was a fortuitous convergence of ASEAN diplomatic pro-activeness, on one hand, and Chinese “charm-offensive” across Asia, on the other. Determined to avoid a military conflict in the South China Sea, the ASEAN brokered the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), which has served as the foundational document for peaceful resolution of regional territorial disputes. This was followed by a rapid pace of deepening economic linkages between China and the ASEAN, with Beijing emerging as Southeast Asia’s biggest trading partner by the first decade of the 21st century.

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Soon, however, diplomatic complacency undermined earlier efforts at sustaining stability in the region. There were hardly any concrete efforts to build on the DoC, namely the establishment of a legally-binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, China continued to leverage its economic influence in the region, preventing a unified ASEAN position on the South China Sea disputes.

By 2012, as territorial tensions between Beijing and Manila reached dangerous levels, China pressured Cambodia to use its ASEAN chairmanship to block any relevant discussion of the issue.

For the first time in its history, the ASEAN foreign ministers failed to even agree on issuing a joint-statement, with Cambodia and the Philippines locked in bitter diplomatic exchanges.

Determined to avoid an intra-ASEAN breakdown, influential regional countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore stepped up their efforts to build consensus on the South China Sea disputes, which culminated in the “Six Point Principles” initiative, underscoring the importance of peacefully resolving territorial disputes. By 2013, the ASEAN, under Brunei’s chairmanship, pressured China to get back to the negotiating table and discuss the establishment of a legally-binding CoC.

Still, China stepped up its territorial posturing, setting off alarm bells across the region. In response, Malaysia began coordinating its territorial position with the Philippines and Vietnam, while Indonesia openly questioned the legality of China’s sweeping territorial claims across the South China Sea.

The Philippines and Vietnam have also stepped up their cooperation, with Hanoi openly threatening legal action against Beijing over recent territorial spats. Upon assuming the chairmanship of the ASEAN, Myanmar eagerly sought to display its willingness to act as a responsible and pro-active Southeast Asian state. Amid a period of domestic political liberalisation, Myanmar has actively diversified its foreign relations, reducing its dependence on China.

It is no wonder that the latest ASEAN Summit saw greater determination on the part of Southeast Asian leaders to establish unity on the South China Sea disputes, calling for all parties to resolve their disputes in accordance to international law.

Nevertheless, the ASEAN fell short of naming as well as directly blaming China for the ongoing tensions and refused to openly side with Vietnam amid the ongoing standoff in the South China Sea. Given the dependence of many Southeast Asian countries on trade and investment linkages with China, Beijing will no doubt try its best to leverage its economic might and forestall efforts at developing a robust regional response to the ongoing territorial disputes.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist on Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings”.