The Debate

The ASEAN Summits and the South China Sea

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The Debate

The ASEAN Summits and the South China Sea

The U.S.-China tussle over the South China Sea issue will be on display in Manila this week.

The ASEAN Summits and the South China Sea
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Declan Barnes/Released

From August 2-8, ASEAN leaders and their dialogue partners, including rivals China and the United States, will have a series of key security meetings in the Philippines. Casting a shadow upon these meetings and haunting the corridors will be recent developments regarding the South China Sea. Indeed, it is no coincidence that tensions are flaring and diplomatic lobbying is intensifying as the meetings draw nigh. Their results may indicate whether China or the United States has the diplomatic upper hand, and if ASEAN can unite and play a serious role in the mitigation of these issues – or is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

While there will be other important issues on the agendas, the focus of many observers will be on ASEAN countries’ positions on the South China Sea issue — with the U.S.-China dialectic being the proverbial elephant in the room.

China’s recent behavior is likely to be front and center. Last week it was reported that China threatened to attack Vietnam’s military installations on features it occupies in the South China Sea if Vietnam did not halt its lessee Repsol from drilling in Block 136-03 — which China also apparently claims.  This has not been confirmed by either Repsol or any Vietnamese official. Nevertheless, when asked if China had pressured Vietnam on this matter, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang seemed to confirm the report by saying that “China urges the relevant party to ease the relevant unilateral infringing activities and with practical actions safeguard the hard-earned positive situation in the South China Seas.” Lu did not define “practical actions” but this could mean sharing — such as joint development of resources.

This report came on the heels of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s revelation that Chinese President Xi Jinping warned him over planned Philippine-sanctioned oil exploration on the disputed Reed Bank. “If you force the issue, we’ll go to war,” Duterte cited Xi as saying. This could have been an observation rather than a threat, but the history of that dispute indicates otherwise.

In 2005, oil companies in the Philippines, China, and Vietnam signed a “joint maritime seismic undertaking” in an area that included Reed Bank. That arrangement foundered on Philippine domestic politics and constitutional concerns; it was not extended and Philippines-China relations rapidly went downhill. In 2011, Chinese vessels harassed an Anglo-Filipino consortium’s seismic survey ship at Reed Bank. In 2015, the Philippines suspended exploration there while awaiting the ruling on its complaints filed against China with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. On July 12, 2017 it was announced that Philippine-sanctioned drilling on Reed Bank might resume before the end of the year. Xi’s “observation” followed.

In both instances, these apparent threats to use force involved what China sees as “unilateral” exploration for and eventual production of petroleum in disputed areas. Indeed, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that “In waters where there are overlapping of maritime rights and interest, if one party goes for unilateral development there the other party will take the same actions.”

It is true that precedential international arbitration rulings prohibit unilateral actions in disputed areas that “change the nature of the area” — such as drilling. However in both these cases, the only rationale that China might have for claiming the areas in question has already been rejected by an arbitration panel. Nevertheless it would appear that despite the arbitration panel’s ruling, China’s nine-dash line historical claim to sovereignty over the resources and features encompassed by it – or alternatively, a potential claim to 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) around some of these features, which was also rejected — is still very much alive.

If this is truly the position China is taking – that it still claims the nine-dash line or EEZs and will use force to enforce its claim – it will have serious implications for China-ASEAN and China-U.S. relations. Indeed, the United States will argue that this is a violation of the existing international order, which it helped build and still leads. Moreover, the United States, Japan, and Vietnam are likely to use these actions to attempt to unite ASEAN against China, at least on this set of issues. Contributing to the increased tension, the United States has resumed its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) against China’s claims in the South China Sea and U.S. FONOPs are now likely to become more frequent and provocative under the Trump administration — much to China’s chagrin.

China’s actions have already exacerbated tensions between some ASEAN members and China at a particularly sensitive time. China is trying to prevent interference by “outside parties” (the United States and Japan) in the run-up to — and at — the ASEAN and ASEAN-Plus meetings. On July 26 in Manila, Wang warned, “If  there are still some non-regional forces or forces in the region that don’t want to see stability in the South China Sea and they still want to stir up trouble in the South China Sea, we need to stand together and say no to them together.” Also in play is Xi’s desire to appear patriotic, steadfast, and strong to bolster his position ahead of the leadership reshuffle at the 19th Party Congress this coming fall.

A confrontation with the Philippines, particularly involving the use of force, would drive it and much of ASEAN into the U.S. camp. China hopes to avoid this by forging a joint development agreement in the disputed area with the Philippines. Duterte is so inclined and negotiations are ongoing. But a serious obstacle is that the Philippines Constitution prohibits a 50-50 sharing of resources under Philippine sovereignty; such joint ventures must be at least a 60-40 split in favor of the Philippines. Agreement by China to such a split could be interpreted as a de facto recognition of Philippine sovereignty over the resource. Duterte has promised to consult all other ASEAN members before proceeding. This could be a stalling tactic.

The meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers and China will also consider the proposed framework for a Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (COC). The draft framework has been agreed by the representatives of ASEAN and China and is likely to be approved by their foreign ministers. However it is very thin — it does not mention the legal nature of the COC, the area it will apply to, how to settle disputes, and how to ensure compliance. All are major stumbling blocks to agreement on a COC. Indeed, there is likely to be many a slip twixt the cup and the lip before a binding COC is ever agreed.

These are some of the issues that will be debated and shape the outcome of the upcoming meetings in Manila. They are important in themselves but one should always be aware of the context in which they are embedded — the contest between China and the United States for dominance in the region. This fundamental security dilemma has now become plain for all to see — an increasingly aggressive China eroding a U.S.-led status quo with a divided and increasingly irrelevant ASEAN. At these meetings the South China Sea issue will be the superficial and symbolic foil for this titanic geopolitical struggle.

This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.

Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.