ASEAN's benefits and responsibilities in the settlement of South China Sea sovereignty disputes

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tải xuốngThe sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN countries and among some ASEAN countries themselves have taken place for decades and become increasingly complicated recently, raising the risk of military confrontations, undermining security, peace, stability and development of the region as well as the lives of the people, first and foremost, those in ASEAN and then, those in Asia - Pacific. This forced ASEAN to make efforts in taking proactive and preventive actions. However, it looks that a few members of this organization are not fully aware of their interests and responsibilities to participate in resolving sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea and thus, the activeness is not fully promoted. There were even countries pursuing their selfish national interests who “delayed” or “created troubles” for the dispute settlement, especially disputes between China and the ASEAN process due to their shortsightedness.

As known, of the 5 countries and 6 parties to claim sovereignty and sovereign rights in the South China Sea, namely China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, there are 4 ASEAN members (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei) having direct disputes in this water. These countries, of course, have significant and all-round interests in exploiting territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea for national development and defense. Five of the rest of ASEAN members, namely Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia, are also located by the South China Sea, sharing huge benefits both economically and strategically from the sea, especially from free trade, national security and defense. Two other countries, Myanmar and Laos, though not coastal states by the South China Sea but still benefit from it as this is the most convenient maritime trade route for both to develop relations with others along the Pacific coast. When the East-West Economic Corridor under the Greater Mekong Subregion Cooperation becomes more convenient, the benefits for Myanmar and Laos also multiply thanks to the strategic advantage of the South China Sea. Thus, it could be said that most ASEAN countries benefit economically from the South China Sea.

Politically speaking, the biggest benefit for ASEAN after the successful establishment of the Political-Security Community (APSC) in 2015 and realization of the community’s activities is moving toward the ASEAN’s vision, building ASEAN to be a regional organization of unity in diversity which plays a central role in the region. The programmes and activities to build APSC such as "shaping and sharing of norms"; cooperating, seeking and establishing institutions to "prevent conflict" within ASEAN, between ASEAN and external partners were clearly detailed in the 2004 Blueprint and in the 2009 APSC Blueprint. Thus, participation in conflict reconciliation and mechanisms establishment to promote trust and prevent conflicts in the South China Sea is both a responsibility and a benefit of ASEAN. Moreover, this participation also helps ASEAN maintain and strengthen its centrality, momentums, tectonic linkage of its multilateral cooperation mechanisms in Asia - Pacific, especially enhancing ASEAN’s role in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Forum (EAS), and the Extended ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting (ADMM +). This will increase the resilience of ASEAN and its members against the increasing pressure of geopolitical competition among major powers, first between the US and China; at the same time, raising the attractiveness and effectiveness of ASEAN and its members in expanding cooperation with external partners, bringing ASEAN's position to a new level, becoming an indispensable factor in creating peaceful environment and multilateral cooperation mechanisms in the Asia - Pacific.

In terms of security, escalating sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea could lead to conflicts, not only threatening the state and national interests of the four ASEAN claimants, but also spoiling ASEAN’s environment for cooperation and development, especially the relations between ASEAN and its members with external partners, first with China. Southeast Asian countries, particularly the claimant states, no matter whether they like it or not, still have to save funds for investment and more expenses on national defense, military to “prevent incidents;” neighboring countries which do not have sovereignty claims also do not want to “leave themselves to their fate” because "when elephants fights, it is the grass that suffers”. This not only harm the region's investment on economic development but has also raised skepticism and concern about security due to the rapidly increasing trend of arms race.

Approaching the issue from the above economic, political and security aspects shows that ASEAN's involvement in conflict resolution and prevention in the South China Sea simultaneously achieves the following goals: (1) Contributing significantly to the realization of ASEAN’s vision; (2) Preventing ASEAN and its member states from falling into the whirlpool or becoming the center of geopolitical competition of major powers; (3) Maintaining ASEAN's centrality in a new shaping regional architecture. At the strategic level, ASEAN's participation in resolving sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea also contributes to reduce competitions, interest clashes, and increase cooperation for mutual benefits between major countries, first the US and China. This will strengthen the cooperation environment and regional security, in which the national and state sovereignty of ASEAN members will be respected, not being undermined and pushed into the spiral of power struggle by big countries.

Therefore, it could be said that ASEAN's participation in sovereignty dispute resolution in the South China Sea is both a responsibility and a strategic benefit of this organization. This is also a new test for the process of realizing ASEAN centrality as well as the strategy to take regional geopolitical control between major countries, first between the US and China.

If all ASEAN member states realize the benefits and importance of resolving sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea as mentioned above, perhaps the settlement of the South China Sea problem with China would not be prolonged until today and for many more years to come. In fact, in the past years, the lack of unity and consensus on a shared position and ASEAN lukewarm responses   in the implementation of agreements signed at regional and international levels regarding the South China Sea have slowed down the negotiation and conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), as well as indirectly "creating room" for China to be more aggressive in its territorial claims in the South China Sea. For example, the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Cambodia in 2012 failed to issue a Joint Communiqué on the South China Sea ; following were a delay from China in negotiating COC as well as a not-so-strong, quite general response of ASEAN to China’s illegal oil rig placement in the South China Sea in 2014. Most recently, the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Thailand (July 31, 2019) issued a Joint Communiqué on the South China Sea but did not condemn directly China for a series of coercive actions in the South China Sea against three countries, i.e. Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia. The above examples are posing huge challenges to the implementation of the DOC as well as foreshadowing an unpredictable future of a substantive COC. It could be said that the lack of unity in ASEAN due to the impact of China's "divide and rule" policy to attain their geopolitical ambitions, goals, as well as differences in interests of parties relevant to the South China Sea can undermine ASEAN's central role in preventing conflicts in the South China Sea.

The question now and for the coming years is ASEAN needs to be more responsible and proactive in preventing conflicts in the South China Sea. ASEAN needs to have higher determination, will and political responsibility than ever to soon achieve a COC that provides strict, specific and binding regulations. In order to achieve this goal, ASEAN needs to take the following steps:

First, in terms of awareness and policy, ASEAN, more than ever, must see its participation in disputes settlement in the South China Sea as a great political mission and a strategic gain of the Association. In other words, the linked fate of each ASEAN member state and the affirmation of ASEAN's values and position as a regional community in today complex context deeply depend on its effectiveness in creating institutions that can prevent and manage escalating conflicts in the South China Sea. This is also a turning-point challenge to the survival and development of this community in the years to come. ASEAN and its members should not be uncertain about this. Along with making efforts, putting pressure to make China negotiate substantively the COC, ASEAN claimants should continue to seek common grounds, agree on a shared position and persuade other ASEAN countries to act together for a substantive and effective COC.

ASEAN countries should also proactively take new initiatives like the Philippines’ 2011 proposal of “ASEAN-China Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation in the South China Sea” or the “Commission on cooperation for peace and security development in the South China Sea”, which is similar to the “Mekong River Commission" that countries in the Mekong sub-region signed in 1995. Besides, ASEAN should also establish a mechanism for “ASEAN Joint Coast Guards of claimant states in the South China Sea”, followed by the "ASEAN Coast Guards", together with China set up a mechanism such as “ASEAN - China Coast Guard" in the South China Sea. In addition, ASEAN countries should also propose a "Southeast Asia Maritime Treaty" as suggested by Prof. Carlyle A. Thayer. He said that the Treaty would involve all ASEAN countries in the maritime security issues. Claimant states will be more independent, have little or no dependence on the agreement of ASEAN's views. Besides, the ASEAN Maritime Treaty is an effective tool to connect ASEAN countries more closely in security cooperation on all seas in Southeast Asia, which will solve the current division between claimant and non-claimant ASEAN countries in the South China Sea, especially in the COC negotiation with China.

ASEAN countries should adopt a binding document, requiring the ASEAN Chair to put the South China Sea issue into the official agenda of the ASEAN High-level cooperation mechanisms, AMM, ADMM, ADMM +, ARF, EAS to promote the DOC implementation and an early conclusion of COC. More than ever, ASEAN needs to make timely political decisions and actions to push the COC process forward. This is a new test to prove the effectiveness and the miracle of ASEAN on the way to be the regional community as well as the center for conflict reconciliation and geo-political catastrophe prevention in Southeast Asia.