Earlier this year, when Indonesia took over the chairpersonship of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it announced that ASEAN would start the negotiation process with China over the Code of Conduct (COC) in March 2023. The process of negotiation over COC began way back in 2002 but was stalled for two years (2020-22) during the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no dearth of doubt about this positive development where both China and ASEAN have agreed to proceed with the COC, but the stark ground realities do not show a promising picture.
China is well known for its claims over the South China Sea based on its historic rights, commonly termed as “nine-dashed line”. It is worth noting China’s unilateral activities in the South China Sea through strengthening its control over the rocks, islets, archipelagos and islands outside the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) jurisdiction. Apart from building artificial islands that support essential military infrastructure in the South China Sea, Beijing has also resorted to “grey zone operations”. It is a set of ambiguous tactics aiming to fulfil strategic objectives without inciting a full-fledged military conflict. Since the nature of grey zone operation tends to be of short duration, the primary purpose is to nudge other countries, which creates a brief yet recurring spell of friction from time to time. The sine qua non components of this operation comprise China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM), which plays an active role not only in monitoring the maritime activities and development but also to coerce the countries in dispute with China over counter maritime claims.
Zooming out to the present on March 25, a Vietnamese Law Enforcement vessel (Kiem Ngu 278) had a close counter with the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG 5205) as the latter patrolled the oil and gas wells in the Nam Con Son Basin located at Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This particular oil and gas well is vital, producing 13.5 per cent of Vietnam’s energy. Simultaneously, Malaysia and Indonesia have had similar encounters with CCG’s surveillance activities on the Kasawari and Tuna oil and gas projects, respectively. The recent incidents indicate that China has continued its grey zone operation in the South China Sea despite its willingness to negotiate with ASEAN over COC. In 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wangi Yi, during his “five nation tour of Southeast Asia”, pledged to speed up the consultation process with ASEAN over the COC. However, besides diplomatic manoeuvres, the current ground situation in Southeast Asia, with probable upgradation of US-Vietnam relation to a “strategic partnership” and granting of “four bases” to the US by the Philippines, might have prompted China to take the matter seriously. China has always been vehemently sceptical about the growing presence of the US and other countries.
Nevertheless, irrespective of China’s coercive activities in the South China Sea, the growing internal divisions among ASEAN, to some extent, have dampened the centrality spirit of ASEAN. Apart from the challenges emanating from the US-China competition and Ukraine-Russia War, the ongoing regional issues have juxtaposed the coherent decision-making of ASEAN. The failure to adopt the “five point consensus” in April 2021 over Myanmar’s political crisis has emasculated the centrality aspect of ASEAN, which is known for managing its relation among its member states. Furthermore, regarding the South China Sea dispute, all the ASEAN countries have differing opinions, which could jeopardise consensus-based decision-making on COC. The ASEAN countries such as the Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have a history of maritime conflict with China over the islands of the South China Sea. Whereas countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore (who have less or no maritime conflict with China) have vehemently supported the cause of maintenance of law and order in the South China Sea in accordance with the UNCLOS; Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have mostly refrained from engaging in this issue due to their close allegiance with China. For example, when Cambodia was heading the ASEAN chair in 2016, it blocked the mention of a ruling by an international court in the Hague against China.
In an attempt to enhance maritime cooperation in the South China Sea, Indonesia has announced all ASEAN first ever joint military exercise to be held in September, which will be non-combat in nature. Previously the exercise was scheduled in the Southern South China Sea. However, Indonesia has shifted the previous location to the South Natuna Sea in Indonesian waters. Cambodia and Myanmar are yet to confirm their participation in the exercise. Although there is high enthusiasm regarding Indonesia’s capability to address the issue pertaining to the COC and Myanmar issue, it is too early to ascertain positive aftermaths on the same. The lack of internal lucidity will continue to deter ASEAN centrality as long as absence and disagreements persist.
Given the complex context, adjournment of the final conclusion of COC has become more conducive for China as the latter has continued with its grey zone operations in the South China Sea. Delays also provide space for China to manoeuvre the decision-making process of ASEAN. China is also well-versed in the current internal dynamics of ASEAN. Moreover, given China’s non-adherence to the Hague Ruling of 2016, the ASEAN members also realised that any COC would not be legally binding. The need of the hour is for ASEAN to look for “alternative approaches” to address the issues of COC and certainly to avoid succumbing to the pressure of China, or else the entire process of COC so far will be considered to be spurious.
[Photo by Than Tiện Nguyễn, via Pixabay]
Shruti Dey is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University, India. Her interests include India-ASEAN Relations with a special focus on India-Vietnam relations. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.