The ASEAN Crisis, Part 1: Why the South China Sea Is a Critical Test

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The ASEAN Crisis, Part 1: Why the South China Sea Is a Critical Test

The South China Sea dispute is a threat to the unity of ASEAN as a regional organization.

The ASEAN Crisis, Part 1: Why the South China Sea Is a Critical Test
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Gunawan Kartapranata

In the age of globalization, there is a trend of international organizations proliferating worldwide. On one hand, this trend positively shows countries being active in their foreign policies, trying to enhance their international status through multilateral forums. On the other hand, the fast-rising number of international organizations also reflects the dissatisfaction of countries toward the existing system of international organizations. In fact, the number of crises among international organizations is growing day by day; notable recent examples include Brexit and the immigration crisis in the European Union, South Africa and Burundi’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, postponement of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Pakistan, and the disunity of ASEAN in the South China Sea dispute.

In such a context, it is important to thoroughly investigate the causes and impacts of fundamental crises in the existing organizations so as to learn some lessons. In this series of three articles, the focus is on the ASEAN crisis, trying to answer the three questions of why the South China Sea dispute could pose a threat to the unity of ASEAN as a regional organization, what the root causes of the crisis are, and what ASEAN could do to overcome it.

Even though the South China Sea dispute is widely illustrated in the media outlets as a question of ASEAN-China tensions, it is not simply the case. However, the South China Sea dispute does pose an existential threat to ASEAN as a regional organization. The South China Sea dispute challenges ASEAN’s ability to manage regional insecurity resulting from an arms race, its responsibility to protect economic benefits, the lives of civilians, and environments of its member states, and its reputation as a credible international organization.

While ASEAN has made great efforts to push for further integration with the 2009-2015 Road Map to ASEAN Community, which consists of ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), and ASEAN Social-Cultural Community, the South China Sea dispute has effectively thwarted those efforts by blocking ASEAN unity due to disagreements over the conflict’s resolution. The escalation of tensions in the South China Sea dispute since 2014 has brought the conflict to the top of the agenda of ASEAN – which is seen as the only legitimate regional counter-balance against China. Unfortunately, ASEAN member states failed to sustain a united position toward the South China Sea dispute, putting a big question mark on the possibility of the ASEAN community, especially the ASEAN Political-Security Community, which declares a commitment to “political development; shaping and sharing of norms; conflict prevention; conflict resolution; post-conflict peace building; and implementing mechanisms.”

Arms Race and Regional Insecurity

The most prominent threat is the militarization in the South China Sea. in February 2016, China deployed 32 advanced surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels, distressing the United States and China’s neighbors in ASEAN. In addition, in response to the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that Chinese claims over 90 percent of the South China Sea area are illegitimate, China remained defiant. Chinese officials even implicitly threatened to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone to control aircraft movements over her claimed territory, which shows Chinese willingness to act unilaterally despite non-recognition from other states.

As the major counterbalance in the region, the United States responded by persistently operating “freedom of navigation exercises” as well as joint military patrols with the Philippines and potentially Japan, Australia, and Indonesia. Furthermore, the U.S. also enlarged her financial support for enhacing the military capabilities of ASEAN and East Asian countries and strengthened bilateral defense collaboration with these countries.

China’s rival claimants in ASEAN also reacted by increasing their defense budget. Compared to other ASEAN countries, Vietnam had the most significant enlargement, a 113 percent increase in defense expenditure in the 2004-2013 period. Vietnam spent $3.4 billion for military advancement in 2013 alone. Furthermore, Vietnam also actively engaged in strategic arms trade talks with India, Russia, and the U.S. since 2014.

Manila also moved to upgrade its military. The Philippines announced $885 million would be spent on purchase of “three guided-missile fast attack craft, two guided-missile stealth frigates, and two anti-submarine helicopters.” As a traditional ally of the United States, the Philippines also actively participated in bilateral military exercises with the U.S. and Japan in 2015 under former President Benigno Aquino. And despite the earlier disruption between new President Rodrigo Duterte and U.S. President Barack Obama, the Philippines reasserted her commitment to military cooperation with the U.S. in 2016.

Malaysia also officially increased its defense spending by 10 percent in October 2014 because of Chinese aggression in the disputed areas near James Shoal. On Admiral Aziz Jaafar, chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy, announced plans to attain “eight guided-missile corvettes and six anti-submarine helicopters … as well as the acquisition of small craft and the replacement of obsolescent torpedo and missile systems on navy ships.” Even Indonesia, a non-claimant state, also reiterated the country’s concern over the security in the South China Sea and announced her intention to strengthen Indonesia military presence in Natuna Islands.

In short, the militarization in response to the South China Sea Dispute poses an inevitable security dilemma for ASEAN countries. In the past, there were incidents of armed clashes in the region. For example, in January 1974, the Battle of the Paracel Islands between China and Vietnam led to  the deaths of 36 troops from both sides. Again, in 1976, 74 Vietnamese sailors were reported dead in a conflict over the Johnson Reef between Vietnam and China. There were also deadly incidents between China and the Philippines. In 1996, Chinese and Filipino gunboats clashed around Capones Island. In 2012, the two sides had a naval standoff over control of Scarborough Shoal. Should military activities continue to intensify, ASEAN citizens will undoubtedly suffer from instability and insecurity.

Threats for Economic Activities, Civilians, and the Environment 

Apart from military concerns, there have been a great deal of unfortunate conflicts in terms of economic interests, civilian security, and the environment. The fact that there is no reporting system to count the number of attacks against fishermen in the South China Sea or any mechanism to investigate or deal with the consequences of those attacks, demonstrates another shortcoming that ASEAN needs to improve. (Even though ASEAN has both a Fisheries Consultative Forum and a Strategic Plan of Action Cooperation on Fisheries 2016-2020, there is no regulation concerning attacks on fishermen in the South China Sea, especially when an outside state like China is involved.) Unless ASEAN manages to negotiate a more appropriate and effective code of conduct in the South China Sea with China, the lives of innocent citizens will continue to suffer.

There is a common, but dangerous, strategy among the claimant states to encourage fishermen to persistently conduct fishing activities in the disputed waters so as to assert their national territorial claims. The slogan is that the fishermen are the brave guards of national sea territory. While this strategy is effective in reiterating territorial claims, since international laws recognize acquisition of sovereignty over territory if and only if there is “intentional display of power and authority over the territory, by the exercise of jurisdiction and state functions, on a continuous and peaceful basis,” it endangers the life of innocent citizens.

For instance, in 1999, a Chinese fishing boat sank near the Scarborough Shoal after a collision with a Philippine naval vessel. In 2000, Philippine soldiers killed one while shooting at Chinese fishermen near Palawan Island. In the case of Vietnam, the three consecutive years of 2014, 2015, and 2016 observed a considerable number of deadly clashes between Vietnamese fishing boats and Chinese naval boats, in which the Chinese naval vessels intentionally attacked and sank Vietnamese fishing boats. Malaysia also reported concerns about Chinese fishing boats illegally encroaching into Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone and Chinese Coast Guard vessels provoking Malaysian oil-exploring vessels in Malaysia’s EEZ.

Besides, the South China Sea is a very important trade route in the region with more than $5 trillion in trade passing through each year. As a regional organization, it is ASEAN’s responsibility to protect such enormous economic interests on behalf of the member states through peaceful negotiation and other political measures (ASEAN does not have a collective security mechanism).

Another prominent danger is China’s illegal construction of artificial islands and the  damage done to the natural environment. The Chinese idea of building nuclear power stations on these fragile islands in particular poses severe environmental threats to the South China Sea. Again, as a regional organization, ASEAN is expected to prevent such threats. Without being able to negotiate a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to manage relations with China as well as among the country members, ASEAN would fail as a regional organization.

Raison d’Etre: A Challenge to ASEAN’s Legacy

If ASEAN cannot ensure the basic securities for ASEAN citizens, there is no meaningful reason for the organization to continue to exist. And that leads to the challenge of ASEAN’s legacy.

In fact, the case of ASEAN bears a great resemblance to the case of NATO at the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – was a very unique initiative: a military organization invented in peace time. The original idea was to build up a collective security alliance to counter the threatening military power of the USSR. At that time, NATO played a crucial role in the power structure, at the core of which was the competition for influence between the Soviet-led Communist bloc and the U.S.-led Western bloc. However, as the Soviet Union, and subsequently the Warsaw Pact, dissolved in 1991, the de facto major opponent – the reason for NATO’s existence – was removed. As a result, NATO had to go through a careful re-evaluation process to redefine its purpose, nature, and responsibilities – in short its raison d’etre – in the European continent.

Similarly, ASEAN is at the stage of redefining its role in the region and the South China Sea dispute is the critical test demanding ASEAN modify itself so as to confront the increasingly aggressive China. Although the two cases do not match 100 percent – the dissolution of the USSR released NATO’s stress while the rising aggression of China is bringing about more difficulties for ASEAN – the logic about losing the original raison d’etre is the same.

ASEAN is one key element of East Asia’s postwar structure. The organization was preceded by ASA, the Association of Southeast Asia, founded in 1961 by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, which received great support from the United States and Britain. ASEAN itself was established in 1967 by the five countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, which had close affiliation with the West, especially Washington as the global power at that time. ASEAN’s primary goal in its early days was to accommodate a security structure during the Cold War. The establishment of ASEAN was originally driven by the widespread consternation against communism, and the enthusiasm to achieve economic prosperity. The communist bloc of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were allowed to join only in the second half of the 1990s.

As the Cold War ended between the United States and the Soviet Union, ASEAN managed to accumulate more political influence in the region and gradually emerged as a key player in regional economic and security activities. During the 1990s, ASEAN pursued the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) in order to counterbalance the dominance of the U.S. influence in Asia-Pacific with the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) initiative. In the 1990s and early 2000s, China was an important partner and source of balance for ASEAN against the United States. However, the ASEAN-China friendly partnership changed as China grew into a world power with bigger ambitions while the U.S. influence dwindled in the Asia-Pacific because of the “war on terror.” As a result, the South China Sea dispute observed increasing tensions between China and her neighbors, requiring ASEAN to adapt itself to a new political context. Unfortunately, ASEAN has persistently failed to establish a united front to deal with China, the rising hegemon. Therefore, ASEAN runs the risk of losing its raison d’etre.

In summary, in failing to solve the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN would lose its credibility at the international level as an effective regional organization, and among its members as a reliable guarantor for member states’ security and prosperity. ASEAN enjoyed its “golden” period in the 1990s and early 2000s, successfully completing its tasks of promoting regional economic developments and mediating conflicts among member states. Nevertheless, as China has changed her position and ambition in the region, ASEAN also needs to adapt itself to a new political context, confronting with the challenges of regional militarization, economic, civilian, and environmental security issues. The South China Sea is truly a critical test for ASEAN’s role as a regional organization.