Little hope ASEAN can rein in China in sea dispute – analyst

JC Gotinga

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Little hope ASEAN can rein in China in sea dispute – analyst
The long-delayed, highly anticipated code of conduct in the coveted waterway will unlikely restrain China’s assertive actions, says US-based Asia maritime expert Greg Poling


MANILA, Philippines – Not even a pandemic has stopped China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea, and if hopes are pinned on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to rein in their powerful neighbor, then they are likely to be dashed, a US-based Asia maritime expert said on Friday, May 8.

China’s actions to intimidate and edge out smaller claimant states in the contentious sea have continued amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, and observers within and outside the region have been counting on the ASEAN states to band together and resist Beijing.

“ASEAN is not equipped to deal with this issue. The Code of Conduct is not going to deal with this issue,” said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The only two options are a bad Code of Conduct or no Code of Conduct at all. That’s the only two options on the table. It’s the only two options that have been on the table since 1998, when these negotiations started,” he told a virtual press conference on Friday.

ASEAN – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – have been working with China to draft a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, a set of rules to govern their behavior on the water.

In late 2019, after two decades of delays, China said it was ready to work with the ASEAN on the sea code. But with China’s militarized islands and fleets of militia and coast guard vessels already in place, it is difficult to imagine how else the other claimants can push back even with a forthcoming set of rules.

The ‘ASEAN Way’

In the first place, only 4 of the ASEAN’s 10 member states have sovereignty claims in the South China Sea: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Indonesia only has a fisheries claim.

Although Singapore and Thailand have pushed for the observance of international law and avoidance of conflict in the South China Sea, the other members have prevented the bloc from directly calling out China for its aggressive actions.

The so-called “ASEAN Way” is to make statements and decisions based only on consensus, resulting in benign pronouncements that hardly ruffle any feathers in Beijing.

“You’re never going to get the Cambodians or the Laos or the Burmese to talk about the South China Sea in any way that’s going to upset China,” Poling said.

Although ASEAN claimant states have put forward new drafts of the Code of Conduct, Poling said they are “basically the same drafts they put forward 25 years ago, and they already lost these arguments with China then.”

Now that the ASEAN states are dealing with a much stronger China, they have slimmer chances of getting Beijing to agree to restrictions to what it can do on the water.

At some point, claimants that are losing more to China, like Vietnam and the Philippines, will want to break with the “ASEAN Way” of making agreeable, bare minimum efforts to push back in terms of diplomacy and rhetoric.

And they certainly won’t agree “to keep their heads down and let the Code of Conduct sell their rights forever,” Poling said.

“So if we continue to believe that ASEAN is the savior here, we’re going to do two things: We’re going to guarantee the South China Sea becomes a Chinese lake, and we’re going to fracture ASEAN,” he added.

The Philippines calls the portion of the South China Sea it claims the West Philippine Sea. The area consists of its international law-mandated exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and outlying areas dotted with reefs and islets, some of which China has reclaimed.

A 2016 international arbitral ruling affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea, and refuted China’s spurious 9-dash line claim that eats up most of the South China Sea, including the ASEAN claimants’ EEZs.

China’s aggressive actions

In January to February, with China already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, more than a hundred Chinese militia vessels were spotted near Pag-asa or Thitu Island, the Philippines’ largest ad only civilian-inhabited outpost in the West Philippine Sea.

The incident, reported by the Philippine military in early March, was part of a longer, consistent deployment of what appear to be Chinese fishing vessels to the area that began in late 2018.

In February, a Chinese warship aimed its guns on a Philippine naval corvette on patrol in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippine government officially protested this with China in April.

In March, Beijing opened new research units on Zamora or Subi Reef and Kagitingan or Fiery Cross Reef, both claimed by the Philippines but reclaimed and militarized by China.

In early April, a China Coast Guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam, China, and Taiwan.

Later that month, China declared new administrative districts claiming the Paracels and the Spratlys – including the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group – under the jurisdiction of its Hainan province.

It later named dozens of geological features in these areas, a way of claiming ownership over them.

The Philippine government also officially protested these Chinese actions.

In late April, Chinese and Vietnamese survey ships shadowed a drilling vessel under contract for a Malaysian company in Malaysia’s EEZ in the South China Sea. Poling said China’s tactic is to make oil and gas exploration “prohibitively difficult” for other claimant states.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has taken a subservient stance toward China, doing little to push back besides diplomatic protests that have not stopped Beijing’s assertive moves.

Duterte has mostly shelved the 2016 arbitral ruling to avoid riling up China, despite other global powers expressing support for its enforcement. –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.