The South China Sea Needs ASEAN More Than Ever

22nd ASEAN-Japan Summit
Credit: Presidential Communications Operations Office, the Philippines / Public domain

After the 36th ASEAN virtual summit in June, the joint statement issued by the bloc’s member-nations expressed concerns over the situation in the South China Sea. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, China has pushed the envelope on its claims by announcing administrative jurisdictions over some islands in the South China Sea. 

ASEAN’s concerns were backed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who announced that the United States will support nations that believe China has violated their maritime claims in the South China Sea. Considered as a significant statement of U.S. support, Pompeo also rejected China’s expansive claims in the region and outrightly staked a position on China’s actions being “completely unlawful.”  This statement by the U.S. Secretary of State not only served as an instance of the U.S. standing up for its Southeast Asian partners, but the same was also intended to prod ASEAN to take an unified position over the South China Sea matter.

U.S.-ASEAN relations under strain   

The U.S. and ASEAN have been partners for over 40 years. However, partnership between the two suffers from a divergence over expectations. ASEAN nations have hoped that for the U.S. to continue to remain an important strategic, economic and development partner as much as it is an important diplomatic partner. Whereas, the U.S. has hoped for ASEAN to share burden in the sense that it adopts more clear positions on issues that pertain to U.S.-China binaries.

Nevertheless, U.S.-ASEAN ties have progressed well in recent times. For instance, Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to meet ASEAN leaders as a bloc in 2009. It signaled the administration’s unprecedented interest in enhancing ties with the grouping. Progress continued in 2014, with the U.S. Secretary of Defence hosting his ASEAN counterparts in Hawaii for the first U.S.- ASEAN Defence Forum to discuss important strategic issues. In February 2016, Obama hosted the Sunnylands Summit — the first U.S.-ASEAN standalone summit on American soil.

Trump, however, has not matched Obama’s enthusiasm for multilateral engagement in Southeast Asia — possibly due to heightened attention to burden-sharing under his administration. In 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump skipped the annual ASEAN summit, and unlike the previous year, the U.S. delegation did not even include his Vice President or Secretary of State. Instead, the U.S. downgraded its participation by sending the lowest level representation, led by the U.S. National Security Advisor. Such tensions in U.S.-ASEAN ties have only served China’s strategy in the South China Sea.

China’s strategy in the South China Sea

No international maritime dispute has garnered more attention than the contest over the islands, reefs and waters of the South China sea. The dispute involves overlapping claims of six nations who have been challenging China’s claim over 90 percent of the area.

China’s strategy in the South China Sea has always been to delay resolutions and impede any multilateral response from ASEAN. According to Taylor Fravel, China’s goal is to consolidate its maritime claims over the contested waters and deter other nations from further strengthening their own claims over the region. Additionally, choosing to only bilaterally engage with nations, it gives China the relative strength and advantage to dominate any development that takes place in the South China Sea. Also by choosing to delay ongoing discussions over the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct in the South China Sea for instance, China continues to consolidate its control over the region and weakens other nations’ positions. Moreover, five years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping stood with Barack Obama in the Rose Garden at the White House, and falsely pledged to not militarize the South China Sea.

This has pushed Southeast Asian nations to respond by either balancing against or bandwagoning with China. This has provided some room for the U.S. to carve out a role for itself. For instance, the U.S. has provided Vietnam with coast guard vessels to boost Hanoi’s ability to patrol the South China Sea amid growing tensions with China. However, assistance in capacity-building is a long-term project, with limited threats to Chinese positions in the near term.

Whereas, in some other cases, China has weakened the positions of traditional U.S. partners. A couple of years ago, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) gave its resolution on Chinese assertions and the nine-dash line. The ruling was in favour of the Philippines’ claims, who had filed the complaint against China. Months after the verdict however, China and the Philippines signed a controversial offshore oil and gas deal, that prompted the Philippines to reject the tribunal’s verdict.

U.S. and China have different agendas for ASEAN

Maintaining unity amongst an international group is not the easiest as different countries have different interests. The continuing tensions in the South China Sea with China claiming most of the region and using bullying tactics and/or its economic power has strained ASEAN unity. While China has stressed on using ‘peaceful’ means of resolution, it has adopted coercion tactics to exact compliance, even beyond the military realm.

For instance, in 2012, China strong-armed Cambodia (the then-chair of ASEAN) to ensure that it fails in releasing a joint communique by making sure it refuses to agree on an ASEAN statement that outrightly criticises China. Similarly in 2016, Cambodia and Laos opposed the wordings of the joint communique as it included details of the Hague ruling on China’s South China Sea claims. 

Whereas, the U.S. looks to strengthen ASEAN unity, but not entirely on its cost. In a bid to provide an alternative to China’s multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, the U.S., Japan and Australia have come together to establish the “Blue Dot Network” designed to fund infrastructure ‘sustainably’ in the region. Such avenues have the potential to make a difference, compared to China’s non-transparent Belt and Road Initiative. However, the question over how to handle China has divided ASEAN for years, and any unified response continues to be a pipe-dream as it has done little to stake out its own independent stance against China.

Moreover, in face of Beijing’s tactics of keeping ASEAN solidarity under strain, member nations unfortunately have not been able to work collectively. In addition, although the U.S. has offered an unifying vision for the region, U.S.-ASEAN ties are certain to be marred with differences. 

Hence, going forward, it is imperative for ASEAN to work towards a common response, else it risks continuing to remain a mere pawn in the broader U.S.-China contest.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Dhriti Kamdar is a postgraduate in International Relations from Durham University. She recently worked at ORF Mumbai as a research intern.