A the top of the list is the territorial dispute in the South China Sea (SCS), which involves four of the Asean members, namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and a non-Asean member Taiwan.
The Asean Foreign Ministers Retreat (AMM Retreat) in Bocaray from Feb 19 to Feb 21, will be the first test for the Philippines — and the rest of nine Asean members — to keep the focus on the SCS. It should be the priority in the context of its geopolitical importance.
Asean should make known its position on several important elements that are crucial in the current circumstances. Namely the need for Asean centrality, unity and solidarity, and the speeding up of the code of Conduct (COC) process as well as stressing the importance of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in dealing with the SCS issue.
Asean centrality calls for an Asean-led regional architecture in which it places the interest of the member countries and its people first.
Asean has worked very hard to sustain its Asean centrality and this was evident in the context of East Asia Summit membership expansion since inception in 2005.
However, Asean’s ability to sustain its much valued centrality came under scrutiny from many sources, due to the SCS issue, which at times exposed a level of disunity, lack of cohesiveness and and a weakening of its leadership role in the regional architecture.
Under the Philippines’ chairmanship, Asean must defend its centrality and pursue the practice vigorously on the issue of SCS with strong regional leadership.
As an outward looking regional grouping with a global player status, this will help Asean gain more respect. It has to show its ability to maintain its centrality as its primary driving force in regional policies.
Asean’s unity has been under the spotlight for many years. The SCS dispute is not simply a regional issue but since the strategic area is vital for global trade — as annually more than US$5 billion of trade passes through the SCS — it is very important to keep the sea lanes secure and safe. That includes resolving the dispute by peaceful means through unity among the Asean member states and strongly opposing China’s intention and military activities there by both legal and diplomatic means.
As such, the Bocaray meeting, and other Asean meetings, from now should focus more on unity as the pillar to face any Chinese threat over the SCS.
Unity means that each Asean countries should show diplomatic and political commitment to help protect the sovereignty of member countries when their territories are under threat by outside forces, like the recent events in the SCS.
The very legitimacy, relevance and values pursued by Asean will be questioned by if the member countries fail to demonstrate enough unity.
Unity also means speaking with one voice and it is high time for Asean to tell to world, and the competing major powers in SCS which indulges in rivalries and power play politics, that it (Asean) is in control.
There is no need for “appeasement” in whatever form when it comes to defend the Asean members rights and their national interests over the SCS issue.
Code of Conduct
While the Asean and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct (CoC) of parties in the South China Sea in 2002, its progress has been slow.
This declaration calls for maintaining peace and stability in the area while the CoC would entail China and Asean to use diplomatic and legal means in settling the protracted territorial dispute.
However, an early conclusion of the COC was imperative to ensure that the SCS issue is resolved quickly so that the region would not see any escalation of tensions or military conflicts in the near future.
Asean has to stop China’s delaying tactics on this as time is essential in conflict prevention where a small incident could easily get out of control, which will be detrimental to Asean and the region as a whole.
Some Asean countries have insisted that their territories occupied by China should be part of the discussions with China, but China has opposed to this.
However, the Asean must be firm on this aspect. Any solution should also take into consideration the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea especially when making reference to “disputed area”.
Asean under the chairmanship of the Philippines must push hard for the completion of the framework for the CoC this year itself. It will be important to halt Beijing’s ongoing military activities on the artificial islands it constructed and also to de-escalate the ongoing tensions and confrontations.
The PCA ruling
Asean should leverage on the PCA ruling in its negotiations with China whether on bilateral or regional basis. China must understand that other Asean countries may also follow Manila’s path in bringing their claims to the PCA.
Prior to that, Asean members must show strongly back and welcome the ruling as well as discuss the International Court award at their meetings. They should raise this issue in any future statements in order to show their solidarity and unity, while using the PCA ruling as an effective “weapon” in weakening China’s argument over SCS issue, especially along its Nine-Dash Line.
In the context of geopolitical developments, the PAC ruling provides Asean with a golden opportunity to strongly push its position, both regionally and bilaterally.
The full realisation of the Asean Economic Community as envisioned by Asean leaders, and eagerly awaited by Asean peoples, will decide the future destiny of Asean as a dynamic regional organisation with global clout in an ever-evolving vibrant region.
However, to realise this, the preservation of regional peace and security is a must.
For this to happen, the elements mentioned above namely Asean centrality, the early conclusion of CoC, support for the PCA ruling, and unity and solidarity among Asean members are key to ensure Asean’s success in its deals with China over the SCS issue including halting future reclamation in the area aimed to shore up its maritime claims.
The ball is now in Asean’s court.