Can ASEAN help PH’s claim to seas?

Maria C. Ortuoste

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'Unfortunately, ASEAN will probably take a more assertive stance only if China’s aggression reaches a level that threatens more countries'

Ever since the 1990s, the Philippine government has been trying to find ways to use whatever means at its disposal to help handle competing claims in the West Philippine Sea. One of the approaches was to “multilateralize” the conversations about the disputes.  ASEAN was seen as the most logical partner because of their geographic location and because of the decades-long relations among the members. 

There had been some support in the 1990s but given the status quo, can ASEAN really help the Philippines with its maritime claims? Can ASEAN help the Philippines prevent China’s growing aggressiveness in the area?

Yes and no. 

It depends on what the Philippines needs and what ASEAN, as an organization, is capable of achieving. And what commitments and sacrifices the other ASEAN members are willing to make.

One way to prevent further Chinese encroachments in the disputed areas and Chinese harassment of Philippine soldiers is by having the same or better naval capability. The Philippines has barely enough money to sustain, much less augment its navy and, even if it could, the country is way behind China.

China’s naval modernization program started some time during the 1990s (although some experts estimate plans were already in the works in the 1980s) and has steadily continued over the next 20 years. In contrast, Philippine attempts at modernizing its navy has been subject to stops and starts partly due to the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, and partly due to renewed attempts to deal with domestic terrorism and Muslim secessionism. 

KAGITINGAN REEF. Status of reclamation activities in Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef as of December 12, 2014. Photo by Rappler

China already has an aircraft carrier, submarines, as well as numerous frigates and corvettes that are useful for operations in the disputed waters. The Philippines is only recently acquiring, or being given, additional equipment such as frigates, corvettes, Balikpapan-class Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) and helicopters. These are very significant upgrades for the Philippines but possibly not enough to deter China.

ASEAN cannot help militarily because it was never created to become a mutual defense organization. They could have decided to change course, but they did not as evidenced by the ASEAN Charter and the goals for an ASEAN Political-Security Community.

This is not necessarily the result of cowardice or coyness, but rather it is the realization or belief that has developed over the years that ASEAN’s “strength” comes not from force of arms, but from its efforts to bring about a diplomatic environment that could lead to mutual understanding and accommodation.  

There is also a practical aspect to this approach.

Even though the defense expenditures of Southeast Asian countries have been rising in recent years, they can never catch up with China.  

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2014, China’s share of world military expenditure was 12%, second only to the US which was 34%. 

The closest contenders in the Asia-Pacific are India (2.8%), Japan (2.6%) and South Korea (2.1%).  Besides, the different Southeast Asian countries also have to contend with other security challenges – insurgencies, terrorism and illegal border crossings.   


Another possible approach is to use economic ties to pressure China into moderating its aggressiveness. But does ASEAN have any economic leverage over China?  

No. Even if you consider the interdependence of the Asia-Pacific economies, the leverage is not there.  China is among the top five trade partners of the association and ASEAN as a whole had a $45-billion deficit vis-à-vis China in 2013.  

The economic gap among ASEAN countries also prevents a collective economic stance against China. The lower-income countries in ASEAN – Burma, Cambodia, Laos – are more dependent on China than the other members. Asking these countries to give up their dependence on China could be constituted as interference, a no-no in ASEAN. Abruptly cutting off their relations with China will also place much economic hardships on the citizens of those countries. While ASEAN is assisting its newest members, they do not have enough resources to fully sustain the lower-income countries.  

Besides, preventing the economic participation of China would dig a deeper hole for the newer members and further hold back the progress of an ASEAN Economic Community.

But perhaps there is an opportunity here: will ASEAN’s economic integration have any impact on diplomatic actions in the maritime dispute? If the hope is that economic integration will enable Southeast Asian states gain enough economic “strength” to influence China, then that hope is misplaced, at least for the near-term because ASEAN members still have to work out the details to make the free flow of goods and people seamless.

Diplomatic action 

So, the last choice is to take political and diplomatic actions.  There is more hope in pursuing this avenue but it depends on three things.  

First, four ASEAN countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – have overlapping maritime claims and have been occupying several islands.  This raises the question regarding political will. Can these countries themselves define or develop a united, common approach when they themselves are competitors in the area?  Nobody wants to relinquish their claims just in case optimistic predictions about potential energy resources in the seabed pan out.  

Second, given the different levels of economic dependency on China and the different levels of enmity between China and some ASEAN states, it would be very difficult to “antagonize” China.  

The ASEAN meetings in 2012 put on display just how much influence China wields over Cambodia. Vietnam and the Philippines want ASEAN to pursue a more aggressive stance against China. But with decision-making still based on consensus, Vietnam and the Philippines (and perhaps Malaysia) needs to sweeten the pot to convince the other members to get on board. 

But this does not mean ASEAN had not been supportive. In 1992, they adopted the “ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea” which urged parties to “resolve all sovereignty and jurisdictional issues” without use of force, and to cooperate in preserving maritime freedom and the environment.  The organization issued another statement in 1995 following the Mischief Reef incident. The ASEAN ministers urged China and the Philippines to refrain from actions that would destabilize the area. The negative publicity from these statements could partly explain why China was willing to enter into talks about a possible code of conduct.

But progress was undoubtedly slow.  It took 7 years for ASEAN and China to sign a non-binding Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 where they agreed to discuss, and possibly undertake, confidence-building measures and some cooperative projects.  Progress stalled because China did not agree with a provision that ASEAN would consult with each other prior to meeting with China. It took almost a decade for the parties to sign the Guidelines to Implement the DOC in 2011.  

Which brings me to the third point: the problem is not only the different interests of the ASEAN members, but rather its belief that building confidence, developing an atmosphere conducive for talking, and patience would eventually bring the parties closer to some resolution even if the steps leading to such were not couched in legal terms.  

The legacy of resolving ‘konfrontasi’

It was this approach that enabled ASEAN to survive during the early years and to even be established in the first place after the konfrontasi (confrontation) policy of Indonesia.  But that situation was different from what we have now.  

The “aggressor,” which was Indonesia, agreed to sit down with the other countries knowing full well what part it played in konfrontasi. China doesn’t see itself as an aggressor but rather the aggrieved party.  

Ending konfrontasi was a way for Suharto to consolidate his power base without having to deal with external problems. In contrast, the WPS/SCS is being used in China as a way to drum up nationalistic fervor and support for the Chinese Communist Party which has recently been dealing with problems of legitimacy. 

Finally, the original ASEAN members in 1967 were roughly similar in terms of power and capability.  China, by contrast, is the much bigger power in East Asia. 

Yet despite these differences, ASEAN needs to continue with this slow and painstaking process because it has staked its international reputation on the effectiveness of this approach.

Has the recent aggressiveness of China impelled ASEAN members to take a more forceful stance?  There are some indications that ASEAN members other than Vietnam and the Philippines, are willing to explore more options.  

Shahidan Kassim, Malaysia’s National Security Minister, said on June 8, that they will take diplomatic action against China because of its continued incursion by Chinese coast guards in the waters off Borneo. This is a surprise considering Malaysia’s decades-long reticence about confronting China regarding SCS issues. 

Hopes are now placed on a recent agreement between ASEAN and China during the 21st China-ASEAN Senior Officials’ Consultation to “reach an early conclusion” on the Code of Conduct.

As positive as this seems, these measures are probably not enough to rein in China or even to shame China. Unfortunately, ASEAN will probably take a more assertive stance only if China’s aggression reaches a level that threatens more countries. And by then, it might be too late. –  

Maria Ortuoste is currently an associate editor for Asian Politics and Policy. She received her PhD in political science from Arizona State University, and is an alumna of the University of the Philippines.  Prior to graduate studies, she served as head of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute.


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