The maritime tensions at the core of Southeast Asian diplomatic alignments


On April 27, 2015, the ASEAN members met in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the latest developments in the region. According to spectators, issues over tensions regarding the South China Sea dominated the agenda during the three days of the 26th Annual Summit of the organization. The Philippines, represented by President Benigno Aquino III, warned about recent Chinese actions that are threatening the peace and security of Southeast Asia. The disagreements between the 10 member countries were expressed in a press release given by the Chairman of ASEAN that expressed serious concerns over “the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea”.

The final communiqué of ASEAN’s last high-level meeting demonstrated again the incapacity of the Southeast Asian passive regionalism to unite the divergent interests of the members towards finding a common solution to external threats. This is the main reason behind the perpetuation of conflict relations between ASEAN states regarding territorial disputes. Nevertheless, as long as their disunity persists, China will managed to reach its purposes in the South China Sea without contestation from its neighbors. But if we look at the economic importance and energy producing potential of controlling this area of 3.5 million km², we realize that the benefits can provide substantial support for the national economies of the developing Southeast Asian countries.

According to EIA’s 2013 report on the South China Sea, estimations indicate the existence of approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proven and probable reserves. Moreover, the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) considers the undiscovered resources to be even greater, no less than 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The increasing demand of energy in Southeast Asia (by 80% until 2035) is highly dependent on having access to the South China Sea’s energy producing resources.

A second fundamental aspect that explains the necessity to prevent Chinese dominance in this area, is related to the economic importance of the trade routes. The White House assesses the annual economic value of the total trade that traverses the South China Sea, to be approximately 5.3 trillion dollars. The biodiversity includes 5,613 marine species whose worth on the market has yet to be evaluated as only the tuna catches account for forty percent of the world’s stocks. These economic assessments provide fundamental justifications for ASEAN countries to set the issue of the South China Sea as a priority for developing a common foreign policy agenda. However, national pride continues to dominate the regional politics, making it impossible for ASEAN to represent a viable actor in the region.

The conflicts between members are numerous and they are usually left to be sorted out through bilateral diplomacy. Based on this ‘ASEAN’ way of solving disputes, until present, 14 disagreements have already been settled and another 16 are still in pending (Ramses Amer, 2001-2002). Michael Mazza and Gary Schmitt, as many other international analysts, have confirmed that the principal weakness of the organization resides in ASEAN’s philosophy of non-interference which cannot provide an answer to the recent regional problems.

From 1955 until present, the Center for New American Security reported at least 54 major incidents in the South China Sea involving: occupations of several parts from the Spratly Islands, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia or China; military clashes between China, the Philippines and Vietnam; mutual confiscations of fishing ships and goods transportation cargos, as well as ship collisions. As a result of these events, several fishermen and soldiers were reported to be wounded or detained by opposing troupes for ransom.

Although the number of occurrences started to increase drastically after 1990, the first significant issue is considered to be the 9-dotted line map which reflects the beginning of Chinese activities to claim areas in the South China Sea. In 1947, the Republic of China published a map with a U-line of eleven dots that highlighted its maritime claims. Later, it was adopted by the Chinese premier Chou Enlai who renounced at the Gulf of Tonkin and transformed it into the famous 9-dotted map. Since this time, neighboring countries have continued to criticize Chinese sovereignty rights over the claimed maritime area, asking for justifications that can prove its jurisdictional requests.

Recently, the construction of artificial islands above Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross Reefs have become a new issue following the harsh critics launched by the Philippine authorities. Satellite images, published on April 17, showed that the new land facilities are able to accommodate military equipment and plains covering an area of 3,300 meters. According to Victor Robert Lee in his article in The Diplomat, this artificial structure “could support virtually all types of combat and supply aircraft in China’s navy and air force”. Previously, Mrs. Hua Chunying, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, described the construction projects to be environmentally friendly and based on the Chinese indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their surrounding waters. Nevertheless, it angered the leadership from Manila who asked for international arbitration over claims regarding the South China Sea to be settled by an international tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Even if China refused to participate in the case, a verdict is expected to be deliver early 2016.

In the meantime, power politics continues to dominate over diplomatic resolutions in Southeast Asian disputes. It is following that China, South Korea, Japan and other ASEAN states, excluding Myanmar and Brunei, have gradually increased their military spending up to 7 percent of their GDP. Moreover, Japan and the United States have expressed their interest in conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea in response to rising Chinese assertiveness over the area. However, no official statements have been published in this regard. The idea requires a well-developed plan assessing the needed military equipment and personnel to be able to counterbalance Chinese activities. This project represents an opportunity for Japan to reaffirm its constitutional revisionism that several Southeast Asian countries disapprove of. Therefore, it is very likely that, in the future, ASEAN will oppose the joint patrols between the Japanese and the Americans, for the fear of the revival of Japanese dominance in the region. As the recent developments in Southeast Asia are similar to the late 19th Century Europe, more diplomatic efforts should be made to avoid the historical recurrence of events that led to the hostilities which predominated in the 20th Century.

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