ASEAN needs a reality check – the best way to handle China as it races for control over the South China Sea is by matching Beijing’s assertiveness with bold moves, a regional expert has suggested.
Associate Professor Jaime B. Naval said governments with vested interest in the dispute must be more daring and unified on China, regardless whether or not the United States takes a harder line to contain its military ambitions.
“(They must) not only (do this) in press releases but in action to tame a ‘giant’,” Naval, of the University of the Philippines Diliman’s Department of Political Science, said.
“At this juncture, Asean would have to consolidate itself, bringing its act more coherently, and not leave matters to ‘politics-as-usual’ meetings.”
Naval said this during his keynote speech at the Jefferson Fellows’ Forum on the South China Sea: Transitions, Recalibrations and Re-Directions organised by the East-West Center and the UP College of Mass Communications at the University of the Philippines, Quezon City recently.
He was referring to Beijing’s expressed readiness to go to war with its heavy military presence in the South China Sea. He said with this in mind, there is now an even greater need for gentleness, tact, fairness and wisdom among Asean member states.
“The way China is asserting itself, with impunity, with audacity, with a heavy hand, casts the shadow of a hubristic hegemon,” he said.
“While individual Asean members continue to benefit, especially from economic engagements with China, Asean can not furthermore afford a bifurcated position.”
For a strategy to work, the different interests and positions taken by Asean members would have to be reconciled as the South China Sea is a global commons that does not belong to one people.
“Whatever lines our countries may claim and draw on the South China Sea waters must reckon with the goal that rather than the waters dividing us, the waters should be unifying us,” he said.
On the Philippines’ role in the dispute, Naval noted despite the nation assuming its role as Asean’s chair this year, Manila has turned “appeasing” towards China.
“By its unconsultative and seeming maverick approach, the Philippines can be imperilling the position of the other claimant members in Asean,” he claimed.
Asean went soft on China in its statement on the dispute this year, during the May summit in Manila. The grouping dropped references to “land reclamation and militarisation” from its chairman’s statement, words included in last year’s statement. Those words were initially included in the earlier, unpublished version of the 2017 address. China, in its response, said it welcomed the softer stand and that it showed that efforts to come to an amicable solution were working. China is not part of the 10-member bloc,
The grouping comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam is hoping to agree on a Code of Conduct framework before year-end,15 years after committing to draft it.
This coming August, the countries will be submitting the “draft” framework to Chinese ministers in the Philippines.
The South China Sea is widely considered to be strategic area for the region and the world, given its position as a vital sea passage through which US$5.3 trillion worth of trade passes every year.
According to the United States Energy Information Administration, about a third of global crude oil and more than half of LNG trade traverses the South China Sea, Naval pointed out.
Aside from being a strategic sealane of communication, the passageway is also believed to have a wide deposit of proven and possible oil resources – a whopping 11 billion barrels’ worth.
However, this doesn’t appear to be the reason for China’s militarisation of the region as much of the reserves are located in undisputed waters, primarily along coastal lines.
“We are told this would cover only some six months of Chinese oil imports,” Naval said.
“Estimated total gas reserves in the region amount to only 28 years of Chinese gas demand.”
Another vital resource in the disputed waters is its marine life; the waters are home to over 3,365 species from 263 families. It is also one of the top five most productive fishing zones in the world.
US role in the South China Sea under Trump
Late May, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for International Law (National University of Singapore) Dr Lynn Kuok argued that the US administration was “asleep to the broader strategic interests” and lacked focus on the South China Sea.
However, soon after, US State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton said Washington’s policy on the South China Sea has not changed under Donald Trump.
Thornton’s assertion was backed by the sailing of a US warship within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea – the operation near Mischief Reef, which is among a disputed string of islets, reefs and shoals, was the boldest US challenge yet to China.
Earlier this month, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that the construction and militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea undermined regional stability. And just a little over a week ago, two US Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flew a 10-hour training mission from Guam over the South China Sea. All these have triggered angry responses from China.
Naval, in sharing Kuok’s sentiment, said the South China Sea issue puts Trump’s campaign promises and political posturing to the test.
Trump’s isolationism and his “America First” slogan have so far led to a cautious relationship between China and the global superpower, and plenty of uncertainty on the South China Sea. Whether or not “America First” will stay at the forefront of the US agenda, however, remains to be seen, Naval said.
The America today, he said, is one of many faces – an America that is unilateral, an America that is isolationist, and potentially, an America that is inclusivist.
“The America that we know is an America with national interests to satisfy but then you have to behave as a mature power in the process, and be mindful as well of some good expectations that would be levied on you,” he said.
“This is where Donald Trump’s policy is right now, although it is still unravelling.”
If it weren’t for North Korea, he said, there would have been more interesting developments on the South China Sea dispute.
“Having the need to have the support of the Chinese to enable North Korea to tone down itself, then the US cannot more openly Challenge China in the South China Sea at the moment,” he said.
“So there is a tradeoff right now.”