Days before the 2019 Asean Summit and Related Summits in Thailand, it is fitting to reflect on the relevance and responsiveness of Asean to its more than 650 million people in Southeast Asia. Amid all its geoeconomic and geopolitical challenges in the region, Asean remains the best platform to settle differences and unite on key issues.
Recent developments in the South China Sea, for instance, cannot be ignored by the Asean members. In April 2019, there was an increased presence of Chinese ships around Thitu (Pag-asa) island, in the Spratlys. In May 2019, China’s coast guard vessels patrolled the Luconia Shoals in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Malaysia.
In June 2019, a Philippine fishing vessel was struck and sunk by a Chinese fishing vessel near the Reed Bank. And in July 2019, China allowed oil survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts to operate illegally in the EEZ and continental shelf of Vietnam This act violated the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction of Vietnam as stated in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Political experts believe that Asean as a regional bloc cannot afford complacency. “More of the same” will not suffice for the next five decades. Its members must constantly and firmly deliver on their commitment to the Asean community.
In the Chairman’s Statement during the 34th Asean Summit (June 23, 2019), Heads of State/Government of Asean Members took note of concerns over Chinese land reclamations and activities in the area that have eroded trust and confidence while increasing tensions and undermining peace, security and stability in the region. The Asean leaders reiterated the need to “enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes” under international law.
Southeast Asian leaders in June 2019 vowed to fast-track the completion of an effective code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea. In the Asean Leaders’ Vision Statement on Partnership for Sustainability Summit last June, an agreement was reached to “work actively towards the full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety and the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC)…”
This year’s Asean Summit and Related Summits is the best time to reiterate the advocacy for a rules-based order in the region and resolve potential conflicts to ensure the completion of an effective, practical and legally-binding COC in the South China Sea consistent with Unclos.
Political observers in the region have identified a number of problematic areas: the undefined geographic scope of the South China Sea, disagreements over dispute settlement mechanisms, different approaches to conflict management and the undefined legal status of the COC.
The United States is deeply concerned over China’s continuing interference with longstanding oil and gas activities in Vietnam’s EEZ. Beijing’s actions raise the question of how serious China is toward all its commitments, including the Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes.
The lack of consensus and united stand on completing the COC within Asean remains a major impediment. Given the limited time, the region can no longer afford a “play it safe” attitude toward the simmering South China Sea issues.
The Philippines should have used the 2016 arbitral award as leverage to rally Asean states and other multilateral organizations to uphold international law. As former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario had put it, the country’s leaders should stop being a “willing victim,” and show the world that we are worth all the help they can extend to us. The only way to uphold the rule of law is to get the support of the community of nations and Asean.
The situation will only get worse if Asean fails to make its voice heard to assert its collective interests and shared need for security and stability. Eventually, the whole international community will be on the losing end if China is allowed to ignore international law without paying a price. Asean needs to find its common voice, and continue to work as an independent bloc working to achieve a “rules-based, people-oriented, people-centered” region.
Dindo Manhit is founder and managing director of the Stratbase Group.
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