Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute
Two weeks ahead of the 33rd ASEAN summit, the Chinese Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang confirmed that China has begun operating a maritime observation center, a meteorological observatory and a national environmental and air quality monitoring stations on its artificial islands in the Spratly islands. While Malacañang refused to acknowledge China’s announcement, Philippine Maritime expert Jay Batongbacal believed that China’s recent activities on its artificial islands should be viewed in the context of its efforts to gain de facto control of the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea.
As the leaders of the ASEAN member states meet for their annual summit on November 13-15, the powerful regional bloc will again test its ability to use its international clout to tame the aggressive and expansive policies of Beijing in the South China Sea. International experts believe that for the past years, South China Sea disputes have been ASEAN’s “Achilles Heel” with its failure to take a unified stance on the issue.
Many have observed that China has shown a “friendlier” face with its neighbors in Asia including the Philippines. China has forged close economic and trade links with its neighbors, many of whom will also take part in its ambitious development plan, the “Belt and Road Initiative”.
Recently, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the Philippines for the second time during President Duterte’s term. Philippines and China sign agreements on humanitarian aid, law enforcement and infrastructure during the Chinese foreign minister visit.
Some political analysts perceive Beijing’s friendlier attitude towards its neighbors is all part of its plan to counter US power. More importantly, it seems that China’s “friendly diplomacy” intends to create more favorable conditions for its development in the coming years. Many countries have already raised concerns on effects of “debt trap” where some resort to geopolitical and resource concessions to service their debts.
To fulfill its political and economic thrusts, China has invested US$150 billion in ASEAN countries in 2018 based on a report published by a regional macroeconomic surveillance unit based in Singapore. The report projects that these figures could soar by more than 230 per cent by 2035.
Since the historic Arbitral Ruling that invalidated China’s claims to the disputed waters, the ASEAN has kept its soft stance on the issue. Worse, the Philippines has chosen to “set it aside” in exchange of investment pledges and loans from Beijing.
This year’s Summit is an opportune time to advocate for rules-based order and push for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and early completion of an effective, practical and legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
While we expect that the Summit will focus on the issue of regional economic integration, it is imperative that the group tackles the geo-political impact of the apparent Chinese hegemony in the region.
The continuing militarization of the South China Sea as a result of China’s expansionism poses serious threat to freedom of navigation and rules-based order.
Amidst this threat, there is a need to enhance regional cooperation in maritime affairs to institutionalize mechanisms for fishermen to operate legally, safely and sustainably.
We want to hear a louder and unified voice of protest against Chinese militarization in the disputed waters from the other advocates of rules-based order.
In this regard, we urge the ASEAN to uphold its principle of centrality and independence to ensure regional stability and its long-held goal of serving as a rock of peace and pride in the region.
They are in the best position to rally behind the Philippines to enforce the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) award and promote the importance of maintaining regional peace, freedom of aviation and navigation in the East Sea, as well as settling disputes peacefully on the basis of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The challenge now is whether the Singapore-led ASEAN will be able to change the tide or keep the status quo on its stand on the South China Sea.
This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.