The context: ASEAN prepares for the 2015 community-building project. Current chair Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s statement of the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi affirmed the progress made by member states in the various sectors of implementing the Roadmap, the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) and the ASEAN connectivity master plan.
However current ASEAN integration is taking place against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea (SCS). The Diplomat’s associate editor and Asian security expert, Prashanth Parameswaran, probes into the strategic unfolding of China’s “incremental assertiveness” or a “step-by step” process of operationalizing and enforcing its contentious nine dash line policy which began with creeping incursions in the Reed bank in 2009. Its “reef expansion” activities proceeded with the de facto take over of the Scarborough shoal in 2012; placement of an oil rig in Vietnam’s EEZ in 2014 and massive land reclamations in 2015.
Centre for Strategic and International Studies senior associate, Bonnie Glaser was more categorical in describing China’s assertiveness in shifting from “rapid island building” in Fiery Cross, Johnson, Subi, Sand cay reefs, etc., to the militarisation of reclaimed islands. According to Glaser, islands are now increasingly being equipped with military facilities such as airstrips and materiel for surveillance, monitoring and patrol.
The scale of China’s expansionism is so unprecedented that the transformation of the water features prior and after reclamation is now documented in a dedicated link in the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (http://amti.csis.org/island-tracker/ ).
ASEAN - China relations scholars are in agreement that China’s revisionism of the status quo in the SCS is fast overtaking the ability of ASEAN member states to conclude a Code of Conduct.
Scholars have argued that for the Philippines, the absence of a code may bear negatively on the outcomes of arbitration under the UNCLOS, especially when submerged islands are reclaimed and “generate” maritime entitlements for the littoral state. Beyond rules formation, the Code of Conduct will be ASEAN’s “unified position” in dealing with China on the SCS matter. Twice did the ASEAN - Philippines attempt at an immediate passage of a Code of Conduct. First in 1999 as a reaction to Chinese military incursions in the Mischief Reef and second, in 2012 , in response to the stand off between Philippines- China naval forces at Scarborough shoal.
History tells us that these failed attempts were reflective of the precarious nature of ASEAN centrality in the face of territorial conflicts with China. On the one hand, it also reveals much of the volatility of China’s commitment to proceed normatively on this issue. Developments since 2012 have not only indicated the slow pace of ASEAN’s negotiations with China on the code of conduct but they have also ascertained China’s preference for “ambiguity” and dichotomy in approaching politico- security and economic issues and in engaging ASEAN in high and low politics.
Statements of the Chinese Foreign Ministry tell us that China does not see the need to expedite negotiations on the code. It denies the existence of freedom of navigation issues in the SCS and insists that a regime on dispute settlement will evolve only after many maritime cooperative projects are cultivated between China and ASEAN, as a means of implementing the non binding Declaration on the Code of Conduct (2002). This includes projects on the low politics kind such as seminars / workshops on search and rescue, hotline communication, etc. Yet, how does one build trust when mistrust has penetrated the high politics side of maritime affairs in the SCS?
A more perplexing question is found in China’s “dual track” approach to the SCS disputes. China insists that ASEAN cannot assert a regional identity when bilateral conflicts are at stake. Many ASEAN -China scholars have looked at this as a clearly Machiavellian strategy of divide and conquer. It mirrors a bigger actor’s condescending view of a smaller (regional) actor. In practice, the force behind any regional grouping is a united front. Not to recognise this for ASEAN undermines its role in the construction of a southeast Asian regional infrastructure.
Against what appears as tumultuous relations with China, are foreign policy opportunities in working with ASEAN’s non claimant yet “interested” states of Singapore and Indonesia. Both have supported an expeditious and early conclusion of the code of conduct. In addition, they have also argued that the SCS security extends beyond the realm of territorial and maritime disputes and towards non traditional piracy and terrorism that pose a real threat to regional stability.
Managing the outcomes of arbitration, possible joint development of SCS islands, coupled with EDCA and AFP modernisation as “inter-mestic” responses to an expansionist China will occupy the agenda of the next Philippine president. Indeed,the SCS issue shows that it is high time for the next administration to pay more attention to foreign policy.
Alma Maria O Salvador, is Assistant Professor of political science at Ateneo de Manila. Co author , Daisy See is assistant professor of Chinese Studies at ADMU.