Southeast Asia’s aspirations for the South China Sea

Thinking Beyond Politics
Victor C. Manhit

Posted on April 26, 2017

As the clock runs down to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit, critics have begun to ask if ASEAN will be able to achieve something to celebrate this year. It’s a question that even the Association’s most ardent supporters grapple with, especially as security concerns loom large over the Summit. While it’s a time-old question for ASEAN, there is urgency to answering it. The situation in the South China Sea is not only multi-dimensional, it has grown more complex with time.

The process of avoiding discord should not be taken for granted. Southeast Asia is home to over 600 million people with different languages, faiths, economies, governments, and more. The sheer diversity of the group’s membership makes disagreement more likely than not, and unity is no easy dream to achieve.

In the next few years, the ASEAN brotherhood must reach accord over one of the group’s most difficult challenges yet: resolving the once-simple boundary disputes that today have geostrategic, economic, military, and environmental dimensions.

There is hope for a positive outcome.

Historically, ASEAN has been a force for peace in the region. No violent conflict has broken out between ASEAN members since they’ve joined the club. To some extent, this is because the countries of Southeast Asia take seriously their responsibility to help maintain geopolitical stability in the region. Given the serious domestic demands that each government must address, all countries are well aware that stability is a basic necessity for economic growth and their people’s prosperity.

Preserving peace and stability in the South China Sea is a matter that should be essential to the whole of the region, whose aspirations and common interests include the uninterrupted use of the sea lanes for trade, the transport of energy resources, and other activities. Yet, the so-called “nine-dash line” that China claims without international legal basis and is working to enforce without the acceptance of its neighbors has proved to be the main obstacle to settling the disputes by peaceful means. The line, which is unacceptable under international law, has been the subject of widespread criticism both in Southeast Asia and beyond.

There are ways to improve the situation in the short run. The parties involved could support all efforts to accelerate the process for joint projects in non-contentious issues. There is room for cooperation in safety of navigation and overflight, marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, maritime search and rescue, and even combating transnational crimes. These are possible even without resolution, for the sake of improving relations among all the claimants.

Trust-building measures are a great proactive step, and they cannot be overlooked, but they cannot work if the parties involved take backward steps at the same time. All parties must, without doubt, avoid the use of force or the threat of force and exercise restraint in the conduct of activities which may further complicate the mess in the waters. This is the path that Southeast Asia has already been united on, and has benefited from the support of the international community. Without the exercise of restraint and the respect for each states’ indisputable sovereign rights, in conformity with UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), there can be limited confidence among the claimants.

All claimants to the South China Sea have obligations to adhere to international laws, including UNCLOS, to ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea, and the guidelines for the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Nevertheless, in this low-trust environment, the region must take the next step of quickly formulating a legally binding Code of Conduct that would help the parties manage their disputes and proceed to resolving them with finality. This step would benefit not only the claimants, but entirety of Southeast Asia and the broader international community.

For the ASEAN Community to live in peace, stability, and prosperity, ASEAN’s Member States and all the claimants must extend sincere efforts to contribute in every possible way so as to ensure harmony in the South China Sea. This means, again, exercising restraint, undertaking confidence building measures, and formalizing a binding Code of Conduct at the soonest possible time. With these steps in place, the region can look forward to a subsequent area of cooperation, extending even to a new treaty over the entirety of the South China Sea.

While we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, but this is a future that is possible if all the parties concerned work together to maintain the peace and stability of the region. While the process may be long, it cannot begin too soon. And so, as we look forward to the ASEAN Summit this week and the remainder of the ASEAN meetings this year, we should hope that our ASEAN leaders share in this vision.

Victor Andres C. Manhit is the President, Stratbase ADR Institute.