The web of claims surrounding the South China Sea continues to grow more complicated – and increasingly tense. As noted here last week, Chinese patrol boats in May allegedly cut the cable of a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship; a similar incident occurred two weeks later when a Chinese fishing boat rammed another PetroVietnam vessel. Last week, Vietnam responded with military exercises and an announcement of which of its citizens would be exempt from military service if an armed conflict were to occur.
At the same time, the Philippines has accused the Chinese of repeated recent confrontations with Filipino ships and fishermen in and around the Spratly Islands. This follows on the heels of a confrontation in early March between Chinese patrol boats and a Filipino energy survey team that resulted in the Philippine government dispatching military aircraft to the site. Not to be outdone, Taiwan, which also lays claim to islands in the Spratlys, is openly discussing reinforcing its coast guard elements already deployed there with, among other things, high-speed patrol boats carrying anti-ship missiles.
Tensions in the South China Sea are, of course, not new. In 1974, the Chinese seized the Paracels from Vietnam, an engagement that included the use of amphibious forces, jets, and ship-on-ship battles. Then, in 1988, China and Vietnam fought a pitched battle near the Spratly reefs, resulting in the deaths of more than six dozen Vietnamese sailors. Ever since, the various national claimants to the fishing and potentially energy-rich areas of the South China Sea have had their occasional run-ins, although nothing as serious as those early conflicts.
The hope had been that the 2002 ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties’ agreed to between China and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would put a lid on the disputes by committing each state to abide by the principles of the UN Law of the Sea, freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes. As such, the Declaration was in line with ASEAN’s larger strategy vis-a-vis China: to create a web of arrangements in the economic, cultural and security realms intended to socialize Beijing to the ASEAN way, under which disputes are settled by the precepts of non-interference and decision-making by consensus.
But although the ASEAN states can point to the early effectiveness of the 2002 declaration, its sustainability appears to be more and more in question. Nor is it clear that new negotiations will produce a result any more satisfying.
First, China is much more powerful, both economically and militarily, than it was during the period that led to the 2002 agreement; the Sino-ASEAN balance has tipped decidedly in China’s favour. Through most of the 1990s, ASEAN’s GDP was more or less equivalent to China’s. Today, China’s economy is more than three times as large. And China’s sustained military build-up has given it power projection capabilities that only a decade ago were non-existent. The results are twofold. First, foreseeing a growing military advantage, China sees little reason to negotiate a resolution in the near-term when it will soon be able to settle disputes on its own terms. Second, Beijing has increasingly drawn several ASEAN members into its orbit, with many of the continental Southeast Asian states in particular believing their ASEAN membership is now less a priority than keeping ties with China in good order.
China’s growing power also discourages ASEAN’s obvious leaders, Indonesia (ASEAN’s current chair) and Singapore (Southeast Asia’s most advanced economy), from leading. Concerned that they will anger Beijing by taking a strong stand on China’s aggressive behaviour towards their ASEAN partners in the South China Sea, Jakarta and Singapore are more than content to note their non-claimant status to the territorial disputes as a reason to take a back seat on the issue.
China’s influence aside, the internal contradiction that has for so long characterized ASEAN – namely, vastly different political systems – may be finally taking its toll. The organization has been unable to solve some of the most pressing problems amongst its own members, let alone those involving external states. ASEAN’s failure, for example, to mediate the dispute along the Thai-Cambodian border, where shooting has broken out repeatedly over the past year, has made it clear there’s a real limit these days to the ASEAN way.
ASEAN’s heyday was one in which its members could band together to keep outside great power interference to a minimum. But this was predicated on a declining Soviet Union, a relatively weak China and a light-handed approach to the region by the United States. This is no longer the situation. As a result, it’s not surprising that one now sees Hanoi pushing for closer ties to Washington, Singapore expanding facilities to host US naval ships, and Manila explicitly taking note of the fact that it’s a strategic treaty ally of the United States. Unable to moderate tensions in the South China Sea as a collective, individual ASEAN members will increasingly look to the United States to ensure peace and stability.
While all this has been the United States’ traditional role in East Asia, the ASEAN states will be left with limited alternatives should fiscal pressures in Washington lead to even a partial withdrawal of military assets from the region. And, indeed, if that does occur, the ASEAN region will more easily become the playground for a future Sino-Indian great game. Both these rising powers will see the seas and the lands between them as keys to providing strategic depth. Their ongoing contest for influence in Burma is a likely preview of what’s to come.
There’s little question that ASEAN’s rise as a multilateral forum played an important role in helping keep the peace that has held in Southeast Asia for the past 30 years. But the changing balance of power in the surrounding region has exposed its limitations as an institution going forward. Unless ASEAN changes its ways, it will be increasingly irrelevant to both its own members and the powers knocking on its door.
Michael Mazza is a Senior Research Associate at The American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Gary Schmitt is AEI's director of advanced strategic studies.