ASEAN Dilemma: Presenting a United Front Against China in the South China Sea

ASEAN Dilemma: Presenting a United Front Against China in the South China Sea

By Tim Daiss

Disagreements continue to vex China and her smaller Southeast Asian neighbors as the two sides continually square off over territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS). But in reality it’s no real contest.

(ASEAN) Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) want China to agree to a code of conduct (COC) in the SCS but can’t form a consensus to do so. China, for her part, is the proverbial big kid on the block and has no real incentive to sign off on such an agreement.

ASEAN summit

ASEAN leaders pose for photographers during the ASEAN-India summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. They are from left; Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino III, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, Minister for the President’s Office of Myanmar Tin Naing Thein. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

From November 15-20 an ASEAN summit unfolded in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Though there was plenty of talk, including attendance from US President Barack Obama and pledges from China for peaceful resolution of disputes in the SCS, no ASEAN consensus was reached and the ever-elusive COC remains a pipe dream.

Sparring also took place at the ASEAN-China regional meeting in Pattaya, Thailand on October 29 as ASEAN officials complained that China was postponing attempts to start multi-lateral talks on the COC and that an agreement could be years away.

Why so much bickering over the SCS? The uproar is over vital shipping lanes but more poignantly oil and gas, and plenty of it, at least according to Chinese sources.

Though oil reserve figures vary, one Chinese estimate places potential SCS oil resources as high as 213 billion barrels of oil (bbl). A 1993/1994 US Geological Survey (USGS) report estimated the sum total of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in the offshore basins of the South China Sea at 28 billion barrels.

Natural gas, according to the USGS, is more abundant in the area than oil. The USGS estimates that about 60%-70% of the area’s hydrocarbon resources are natural gas and places the sum total of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in the offshore basins of the SCS at 266 trillion cubic feet (Tcf).

Code of Conduct

The phrase is indicative of what it really is: An agreement to keep all participants in line, hopefully good behavior — something that’s been in short supply in the SCS as well as the East Sea between Japan and China recently.

Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, told Energy Tribune that the purpose of a COC is to regulate state behavior until the sovereignty disputes are resolved.

“ASEAN is intensely divided on this issue and can’t reach consensus on an appropriate enforcement mechanism, without which the COC would be toothless,” Thayer said.

“There is no instant remedy to settle this matter,” he added.

Dr. Harsh V. Pant with the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London told Energy Tribune that there are significant diverging interests and not all [ASEAN] states have an equal stake in the SCS.

“The area holds more import for some states while for others it is not worth disturbing their growing ties with China,” Pant said.

Thayer for his part also pointed to another problem, stating that ASEAN can’t agree when to involve China in the negotiations.

“The Philippines with the support of Vietnam agree that ASEAN should draw up its first draft and then present it to China. Others, Indonesia and Cambodia, [ASEAN countries sympathetic to China] want to involve China at an earlier stage,” he said.

The Philippines row with China intensified from April to July at Scarborough Shoal in the SCS as ships from both sides stared each other down at what amounts to little more than rocks, with ambassadors and diplomats from both sides meeting, and disagreeing continually, with plenty of saber rattling, mostly from China.

The Philippines claim Scarborough Shoal as part of its 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), while China rejects that claim and counters that the area was mapped as Chinese territory as early as the 13th century.

Vietnam is also locked in a decades old rift with China over the hydrocarbon rich Paracel Islands, off Vietnam’s coast, in the SCS. After a brief but intense naval engagement in 1974, which South Vietnam lost, China has maintained control over most of the islands despite vehement protests from Vietnam.

ASEAN’s failure to form a consensus against China also played out in July when ASEAN foreign ministers failed to move ahead on the SCS issue at a regional meeting. The ministers’ dispute prevented ASEAN from producing a joint communiqué for the first time in the associations’ 45-year history.

In September, Washington chimed in as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with ASEAN officials to discuss SCS tensions, and urged ASEAN to present a united front against China.

At the time Beijing promised to ensure freedom of navigation in the SCS and ensured Clinton that they were willing to work on a COC to manage disputes.

However, it appears China was merely placating the Secretary with empty promises, similar to its statements in Cambodia last week.

Dr. Pant said that China can promise all it wants but that it’s a question of “trust in China’s promises.”

“Given China’s recent behavior, there are now few willing to believe in Chinese promises,” he said. “Clearly it would be counter-productive for China to prevent freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as it will further galvanize opposition to China in the region and beyond. China’s expansion definition of its interests remains a major problem.”

Asked when a COC might be agreed upon, Pant said that he was very skeptical that China would agree on a COC with ASEAN anytime soon or in the near future.

“It [China] has successfully been able to divide and rule the ASEAN and in doing so managed to make its position rather strong,” he said.

Pant added that ASEAN is no longer willing to negotiate as a block as was evidenced in recent meetings where Cambodia took China’s side, so there is not real incentive for Beijing.

When also asked when a COC might be agreed upon, Thayer was blunt.

“Don’t hold your breath,” he replied.

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