On June 26, 2020, the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a joint statement in the 36th ASEAN summit under the chairmanship of Vietnam expressing concerns over the tumultuous situation in the South China Sea (SCS). ASEAN leaders stressed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight above the SCS, as well as upholding international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which should be the basis of sovereign rights and entitlements in the disputed maritime territory.
It was one of the strongest statements made by ASEAN leaders when China increased its expansionist maneuvers in the geographical space based on mere historical claims. From this point-of-view, ASEAN is seen as a firm entity in treading towards a rules-based approach in international relations, which significantly complements the vision of the United States leadership. This article argues that in order for ASEAN to achieve its collective goals, particularly in the SCS, it would have to deepen its relations with the U.S. to reap the benefits of a rules-based, free and open Indo-Pacific.
The ASEAN Leadership
Despite critics labeling Vietnam’s chairmanship as a lost year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the strong tone of the recent ASEAN joint statement significantly reflects Hanoi’s effective regional leadership. According to Alfred Oehlers, ASEAN must “remain resolute in pursuing key priorities and maintain its position as a contributor to the rules-based international order” despite the pandemic by considering “bolder temporary measures to signal and reassure sustained continuity and focus… on crucial priorities.” Moreover, the months of March to May 2020 significantly demonstrated Vietnam’s resolve in confronting traditional and non-traditional security challenges, such as acting as a country-model for handling the pandemic and maintaining a firm position against Chinese provocations in the SCS. This also shows how resolute Vietnam is in forwarding its aspirations regarding regional stability. Last year, Vietnam was portrayed as the standalone state in confronting China in the SCS. However, Hanoi has proven that its boldness and resilience serve as the qualities that reflect regional leadership.
ASEAN’s de facto leader, Indonesia, can also be factored in the current state of affairs. In May 2020, Indonesia sent a diplomatic note to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to protest Chinese assertions within the bounds of the former’s claims in the Natuna Islands in the SCS. This diplomatic protest effectively affirms the 2016 Hague ruling against China’s historical claims as well as the 1982 UNCLOS. In March 2020, Indonesia also endorsed the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) in Mexico City to demonstrate ASEAN centrality in the region. Both Indonesia and Vietnam have been leading ASEAN towards a path of resilience against the backdrop of a rules-based international order.
ASEAN reaffirms the importance of the AOIP which was concluded on June 23, 2019. Accordingly, ASEAN should engage in the wider Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions by encouraging extra-regional partners to support and undertake cooperative engagements on key areas, such as maritime cooperation. By doing so, the AOIP will be able to effectively uphold the relevance of the 1982 UNCLOS amid contentions of historic assertions in the region. ASEAN believes that it can play an increasingly strategic role in the interconnected region that shares two oceans.
The United States Leadership
The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. welcomes the statement given by ASEAN regarding the need to abide by international law in dealing with the SCS issue. Thrice in the past week, Secretary Pompeo has slammed China for its “aggressive expansionism” in the Indo-Pacific region. He has also talked about moving U.S. troops from Europe to Southeast Asia to protect regional allies and friends from China. Both President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping for trying to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas. As of June 2020, the U.S has deployed three aircraft carriers in the region which shows that it is steadfast in guaranteeing its commitment towards ASEAN in creating an environment favorable for the Southeast Asian states. As a result, both ASEAN and the U.S. must forge closer and deeper relations to attain their collective and individual goals.
However, it is inevitable that China’s assertiveness has created fault lines within ASEAN due to the economic and political pressure it has been applying. This obstacle has hindered the projection of ASEAN unity; however, with the recent statement given by the Southeast Asian leaders, ASEAN unity may be on the road towards a more positive turn. This turn rests on the common belief that inter-state relations must be governed by international law. Moreover, this belief coincides well with the ideals of U.S. leadership which clearly diverge from China’s actions. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Strategy of the U.S. duly stresses that “ASEAN is most effective when it speaks with one voice about pressing political and security issues.” With ASEAN adopting the AOIP, the shared vision for the region will become more integrated than ever. In November 2019, the 7th ASEAN-U.S. Summit held in Bangkok yielded positive results as the 1982 UNCLOS codified maritime cooperation. Another ASEAN-U.S. Summit was supposed to be held on March 14, 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, the partnership continues as the world handles the pandemic.
It would be in the best interest of ASEAN to deepen its cooperation with the U.S. at a time when China seeks to revise the status quo unilaterally. U.S. interests strategically converge with ASEAN’s desire for a peaceful and legal resolution of the maritime dispute. As a result, it would be the most practical step for Southeast Asian states to enhance cooperation with Washington during these tumultuous times. Going beyond rhetoric, implementing the ASEAN-U.S. Strategic Plan of Action (2021-2025) is essential to pave the path towards that direction. Hopefully, the increased partnership at sea which includes but not limited to joint maritime exercises — will be able to uphold the rules-based international order in the region.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.
Joshua Bernard B. Espeña is a defense analyst of the Office for Strategic Studies and Strategy Management of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He is currently pursuing his Master’s in International Studies at the University of the Philippines, Diliman.
Don McLain Gill is currently pursuing his Master’s in International Studies at the University of the Philippines, Diliman.