Will the South China Sea dispute mark the downfall of ASEAN?

Will the South China Sea dispute mark the downfall of ASEAN?

The South China Sea dispute revolves around territorial claims over two small groupings of islands in the region, namely the Spratly Islands and to a lesser extent the Paracel Islands. 

The claimants involved in the dispute believe that the ocean area in which the islands are located is rich in oil and gas deposits, and control over the region has been sought for quite some decades. The clash of interests involves a number of states: China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN members including Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia.  Recent standoffs – particularly between China and the Philippines – have resulted in increased militarization in the area, a more assertive, belligerent China unwilling to recognize international law, and a call for resolution.

Naturally, ASEAN and its recognized role in promoting peace and stability in the region has come under scrutiny during the dispute, and the organisation’s failure to provide successful mediation on the issue has raised concerns as to its ability to guard the interests of Southeast Asian nations. How should ASEAN respond to criticism over the South China Sea dispute and how should it proceed hereafter?

The strengths and weaknesses of ASEAN

ASEAN was established in 1967 as a regional project that aimed to reduce the vulnerability of Southeast Asian states, fueled by a fear of China’s growing presence in the region, which posed a potential security threat to its neighbours. The ethos of the association has centered around the principles of non-intervention, collective norms, respect for sovereignty of the member nation states and the peaceful settlement of disputes. ASEAN’s approach has provided a successful discussion forum to facilitate cooperation in the form of regional summits and treaties; unthreatened by ASEAN’S non-intervention stance, China became the first major power to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1976.

As a result of TAC and ASEAN’S core principles, cooperation and a form of soft regionalism have resulted in an increased role of China in trade agreements, the more crucial of which saw the region through the financial crisis of 2008 -2010. ASEAN’s leadership has therefore promoted a diplomatic space in which nation states can negotiate their interests without the threat of conflict, and has spearheaded economic integration within the region.

While ASEAN espouses cooperative, diplomatic norms, realists tend to view the association as a pleasant façade with little substance; although ASEAN has been capable of setting agendas across a range of political, economic and security issues, it has not exercised leadership across the board, and has limited and incomplete enforcement mechanisms. The South China Sea dispute has exposed a number of ASEAN’S weaknesses: notably, the failure of the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in July 2012 marked the first occasion where member states were unable to produce a consensus: Cambodia’s close economic ties with China made it unwilling to voice an opinion against China’s actions in the South China Sea, and the summit illustrated China’s ability to exert its power over ASEAN nations and thwart unity.

Moreover, the dispute has challenged ASEAN’s capacity to protect the economic livelihoods of citizens and environments of its member states: China’s dismissal of the ruling made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has resulted in increased militarization of the region, with involved parties – particularly the US, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia – stepping up defence as a security threat emerged. Despite increased hostility in the seas, claimant states have continued to allow fishermen into disputed waters to assert territorial claims, and without a clear code of conduct to regulate fisheries, attacks have not been reported or monitored, and the consequences have not been dealt with. Without consensus, and without a collective, integrated security mechanism, ASEAN has done little to alleviate the South China Sea dispute.

ASEAN in a new era: moving forward

Critics have pointed to the handling of the South China Sea dispute as a sign of ASEAN’s descent, yet the events surrounding this dispute need not be an existential threat to the association. In part, the criticism of ASEAN stems from a lack of clarity regarding its role in the region:  Like NATO, which lost its raison d’etre following the breakdown of the Soviet Union forcing a reconfiguring of the organisation’s purpose, ASEAN must now adapt to the new political context of the region and develop its functions accordingly.

While ASEAN has to some extent raised a white flag regarding a solution to the South China Sea dispute so far, this does not mean that it cannot learn from its pitfalls and formulate a better response system for ongoing and future disputes. Going forward, it can make plans to increase cooperation and integration in the region, which may result in greater unity and consensus. The ASEAN Economic Community blueprint (2008-2015), for instance, has not been fully realized. While tariffs have fallen quite dramatically – especially among more advanced ASEAN nations, progress in other areas has been slow, including elimination of non-tariff barriers and the liberalization of services.

The blueprint for 2025 has not proposed initiatives to strengthen integration from institutional perspectives, or to implement reforms at the national level, thus at present, the AEC manifests as a much shallower institution than the European Union, or the European Commission. If ASEAN can adapt its blueprint, and strive for a fully integrated economic region, this may help to reduce the dependence of member states like Cambodia on China, and subsequently, the grounds for cooperation and consensus may enlarge.

Furthermore, ASEAN should utilize the mechanisms it possesses that could solve disputes: The High Council is authorized by the TAC agreement to produce legal judgments, which may enable peaceful solutions, yet so far the mechanism has not been utilized. Solidifying a judicial mechanism would help to entrench the rights of Asian states, and in turn allow for ASEAN to more effectively deal with economic, civilian and environmental threats.

ASEAN is undergoing an existential crisis that calls for the modification and strengthening of its mechanisms, as illustrated by the South China Sea dispute. ASEAN should solidify codes of conduct to ensure the protection of civilians, focus on the development of a sound economic community, and utilize the High Council in solving disputes through legal mechanisms.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Robyn Kelly-Meyrick

Originally from Oxford, Robyn currently works as an Analyst at a financial technologies provider based in Amsterdam. She holds an MSc in Political Science from the University of Amsterdam, and a BA in International Relations from the University of Sussex. As an undergraduate she studied Japanese, and spent a term abroad at the International Christian University in Tokyo. Her studies have focused on East Asian politics, and particularly on economic and social development in Japan and China. Robyn has her own blog, Deliberately Untitled, which focuses on foreign affairs, society and culture.