In view of the Chinese maritime militia’s ramming of a Filipino vessel in Recto Bank on June 9, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio proposed a number of “no war” techniques for pursuing the Philippines’ arbitral victory against China. One of the strategies would enjoin us together with Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, to enter into a convention that would collectively voice support for the ruling against China’s dashed lines. Accordingly, this convention will “leave China isolated as the only disputant state claiming EEZs from the Spratly islands.” All but Indonesia have laid a claim in the South China Sea.
The timeliness of this proposal today cannot be over-emphasized given the most recent ASEAN talks on the Code of Conduct (CoC) that ASEAN members states want in place in order to govern the use of and manage the disputes in the South China Sea. The CoC has yet to materialize since a framework was adopted in 2017 and a Single Draft was forged in 2018. Asymmetry in the preferences of ASEAN actors and China’s inherent leverage in the talks contribute to the continuing presence of blind spots to date: the lack of a well-defined geographical scope of the South China Sea, which should be central in the negotiations and which, when addressed, should include the disputed islands; the lack of agreement on the nature of the dispute settlement mechanism (i.e. to adopt either multilateral or bilateral means of settling disputes); and, a lack of conclusiveness as to the binding nature of the future code.
Are these developments a foreshadowing of the inherent weakness of the proposed no war strategy?
Among the ASEAN member states, the sub-regional or mini lateral approach is a pragmatic route for like-minded states to build a consensus over issues that directly affect them. In the maritime domain, the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement, signed and entered into by the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia in June 2016, formalizes the coordinated maritime patrols among these states that share common maritime borders in the Sulu-Sulawesi waters. In 2017, the terror attack in Marawi City in Mindanao also served as the major driver for the “triborder” states to join efforts to coordinate their aerial and naval patrols and the monitoring of their border-crossing stations.
Certain ingredients of that trilateral arrangement do not coincide with the elements of the proposed sub-regional convention: the existence of a common threat perception among actors, the non-traditional and non-controversial security-framing of threat, and the functionality of the solution being proposed.
To elaborate on the how these do not apply to the actors of the proposed convention, one must examine actors’ domestic preferences in dealing with China in the new cold war context of the South China Sea.
With the exception of Vietnam, which is vocal against China,and the Philippines, which under President Rodrigo Duterte, has adopted a policy of China’s appeasement, the rest of the above mentioned ASEAN member states — Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei — have implemented varying strategies to balance off China’s power in the region.
While recognizing the threat of China, domestic economic considerations have driven Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to recalibrate their response to China’s aggression by recasting the threat it poses. Jokowi, for one, has extended his war against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) to include Chinese fishing vessels as one of the targets. Sinking fishing boats engaged in IUU, according to reports, is presented as a civilian policy of “deterrence” against IUU and not as a politico-security policy of “retaliation” against China’s encroachment in Indonesian waters. On the other hand, Mahathir’s “no gunboats policy” in the South China Sea, which seeks to focus on piracy as the region’s foremost security threat, is a de-securitizing act to manage China’s increasing intrusions. Jokowi’s “go it alone” policy in the South China Sea and Mahathir’s policy of recalibrated distance from the great powers set the trend against an exclusive/sub-regional action against China. Brunei is no exception to these trends.
These are the reasons why the proposed no war sub-regional strategy to directly pressure China to enforce the arbitral ruling is lacking real political feasibility.
Alma Maria O. Salvador, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Political Science of Ateneo de Manila University.