Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute
The Association of Southeast Nations, as a powerful regional bloc, was in the best position to rally behind the 2016 landmark arbitration ruling that China’s claim based on the “nine-dash line” has neither legal nor historic foundation. But experts believe that the 10-member bloc failed to use its international clout to “tame an aggressive Beijing” in 2017.
This year, the ball is in the hands of Singapore, the new Asean chair, to change the tide or keep the status quo. The arbitral ruling forces states in the region to take sides—to be on the side of international law (or the status quo) or against it (revisionism leading to China’s domination of the South China Sea).
Amid the daunting challenges in the region, the heads of Asean member-states will meet on April 25-28. Singapore, experts believe, is in a better position to steer the direction of sensitive discussions on maritime cooperation and security since it is not directly involved in any territorial or maritime dispute. For the past years, it has also maintained amicable relations with all major powers, including China and the United States.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that under Singapore’s chairmanship, the Asean will seek to promote a rules-based order in the region and devise ways to effectively address security challenges. Singapore is determined to work with the member-states to find innovative ways to cope with emerging security challenges such as cybersecurity, transnational crime, and terrorism.
During the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat last February, we had a preview of their “soft stand” on the issue. It seems that the Asean’s “overabundance of caution” still lingers. Per the Chairman’s Statement, the Asean “took note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
There were no strong words on China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea, but the Chairman’s Statement cited the need for self-restraint in the conduct of activities, avoidance of actions that may further complicate the situation, and the pursuit of a peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 Unclos.
At the annual Asean Summit, the heads of states will have a strategic opportunity to put the South China Sea issue as part of their maritime security agenda. The multilateral meetings will play an important role in reinforcing international law and building practical cooperation among member-states.
The continuing militarization of the South China Sea as a result of China’s expansionism poses a serious threat to freedom of navigation and the rules-based order. Recent developments, including the sighting of Chinese military transport planes on Panganiban Reef, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, should not be taken lightly.
We hope that the Asean can live up to its own organizing principle as an independent force for regional stability and its long-held goal of serving as a rock of peace and pride for the region.
As the new chair, Singapore can assert its leadership and propose open discussions on the arbitral ruling for a lawful approach to the South China Sea disputes.
The Asean can encourage the “voices of our Southeast Asian claimants” to be heard. As a group, it can stand firm against China’s belligerence in the South China Sea. The disputes must and will be settled through the agreement of all those involved directly or indirectly. The voice of Asean members, especially the claimants, should be highlighted in this year’s discussions.
Asean leaders should prioritize the formulation of an effective and legally binding Code of Conduct with China. In order to be effective, the Code should have binding and enforcement settlement mechanisms.
The 2016 arbitral ruling should be made an integral part of the Code of Conduct framework that is being finalized and, eventually, the Code itself. After all, our region cannot promote the rule of law while ignoring the law as it stands.
The key challenge for the Asean is how it can maintain its unity and at the same time assert its centrality amid the growing economic influence of superpowers and evolving geopolitical dynamics in the region.