ASEAN maritime Security and the China Factor

Published: July 6, 2020 6:19 PM

The recent COVID 19 crisis which is affecting populations and economies across the globe has generated considerable ill-will towards China. Countries big and small, rich and poor are becoming openly critical of China and these include even some of those who till recently had been singing praises of Chinese economic largesse.

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN leaders summit in Bangkok, Thailand (AP Photo)

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh

The Chairman’s statement on 26 June 2020 at the recently concluded ASEAN Summit held in Vietnam highlighted the group’s security concerns and made a pointed reference to China in reiterating its commitment to the rule of law in South China Sea and its adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982). China, despite having ratified it, pays scant attention to abiding by it as was seen in 2016 when China blatantly disregarded the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration which ruled in favour of the Philippines in a maritime dispute in the region.

Extracts from Paras 64 and 65 of the statement quoted below could not have been more specific in their intent short of naming China for its aggressive and belligerent behaviour and its total disregard for any established norms, rules, laws or conventions.

“We reaffirmed our shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

“We discussed the situation in the South China Sea, during which concerns were expressed on the land reclamations, recent developments, activities and serious incidents, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”

Para 65 goes onto reaffirm “ that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones, and the 1982 UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out. We emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”

The South China Sea washes the coasts of eight of the 10 member states of ASEAN with Myanmar and Laos (landlocked) being the only exceptions. Of these, five (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei) and Taiwan has a running maritime dispute with China on multiple issues.

China has claimed ownership of over 85% of the South China Sea; its nine-dash line overlaps with the EEZ of all five. It has also built a number of artificial islands on reefs and shoals and has now staked a claim to the waters around these as its territorial seas and a larger claim to the EEZ which impinges on the EEZ of five of the member countries of ASEAN. It is now in the process of militarising these islands with airfields from where military aircraft can operate and installation of missile batteries which has a direct bearing on the maritime security of the region. A PLA Navy Type 071 LHD was recently sighted off Woody Island. It has also given Chinese names to the disputed Spratlys and the Paracel Islands and has established an authority to administer them.

The Asia-Pacific region (and I am deliberately not referring to the Indo-Pacific because the focus of ASEAN maritime security is centred in the Asia-Pacific region east of the Malacca Straits) is defined by a distinct maritime orientation and most of the security challenges, both traditional and non- traditional exist in that domain. China has been using a stick and carrot policy with the ASEAN nations – it first coerces and then cajoles – which generate a sense of insecurity in these nations regarding Chinese intent, obvious though it may seem. China has been loath to treat ASEAN as a collective organisation and insists on bilateral engagement with its members which further increases this sense of insecurity. For many years now, ASEAN has been trying to persuade China to sign a Code of Conduct (COC) with ASEAN but China has been stonewalling this and has been insisting on signing a Declaration of Conduct (DOC) with individual ASEAN members which is not acceptable to the former for very obvious reasons.

China has also been trying very hard to exploit fault lines amongst the ASEAN members by various inducements and has managed to drive a wedge or two. However, the recent pushback even by countries like the Philippines whose President Rodrigo Duterte has been playing hot and cold with both China and the US, now being openly critical of China. Vietnam remains a thorn in China’s flesh and both Malaysia and Indonesia have retaliated to Chinese coercion. Thailand and Singapore have no standing dispute and have maintained a discreet silence. Cambodia and Laos rarely contradict China and Brunei is perhaps too small to be of consequence. Myanmar, which was heavily dependent on China till a few years ago has tried to break out of that embrace by increasingly engaging with India and the west.

ASEAN as a group is central to the Asia-Pacific region. However, even a grouping like the Quad which has the potential to blunt China’s aggressive moves in the region had itself till recently failed to acknowledge this fact. India perhaps has been the only Quad member which has been emphasising ASEAN’s centrality to the region. Japan and Australia who are now reorienting their strategy towards this region have also now acknowledged ASEAN centrality from an economic perspective. The US, on the other hand, sees this region from an economic and security perspective because of the simmering rivalry between China and the US which is multi-dimensional, multi-layered and multi-sectoral. For the US to retain its primacy in this region, it has to engage effectively with like-minded nations including the ASEAN countries. In the last few years, time-tested US military alliances with Japan and South Korea and to a lesser extent with some of the ASEAN members have come under strain since President Trump took office in 2016. However, with the increasing polarisation in the China-US relationship and China’s increasing belligerence over the last few months, it is an opportune time for the US to look at a more cooperative and committed security architecture in the region.

President Trump has recently moved three Carrier Battle Groups into the Western Pacific, an unprecedented show of maritime power in a single theatre and has also pledged troops to the region. He is also riling China on Taiwan. European navies including the Royal Navy and the French Navy have also committed naval assets to the region. Germany is also talking about deploying a frigate. ASEAN navies too are augmenting their naval forces – Indonesia has procured new submarines, Singapore has a modern and powerful navy, Malaysia and Thailand are focussing on naval modernisation (the latter with Chinese platforms), Vietnam operates six Kilo-class submarines, Myanmar, according to media reports is likely to get one Kilo-class submarine from India ( though this is likely to be deployed in the Bay of Bengal).

The recent COVID 19 crisis which is affecting populations and economies across the globe has generated considerable ill-will towards China. Countries big and small, rich and poor are becoming openly critical of China and these include even some of those who till recently had been singing praises of Chinese economic largesse. They have now realised too late that Chinese money came with major strings attached, some of which tugged at core sovereignty issues with little or no leeway to escape this trap. Known as China’s debt-trap diplomacy, this predatory approach which China saw as its gateway to global supremacy and a form of economic colonialism through its Belt and Road Initiative on the basis of which it would shape the new global order with ‘Chinese characteristics’ has begun to unravel. This is an opportunity for ASEAN to redefine and consolidate its security parameters. Whether or not it is successful in stemming the Chinese juggernaut will define the security calculus in the region and perhaps the future of ASEAN.

(The author is Indian Navy Veteran & Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)

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