During the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summit meetings held between October 26-28, issues related to peace and tranquillity in South China Sea (SCS) were raised. It was expected that under the chairmanship of Brunei there would be constructive engagement between the participating countries so that certain timelines with regards to Code of Conduct (COC) on South China Sea, which is also known as West Philippine Sea and East Vietnam Sea, could be adopted.
Chinese increase militarization in South China Sea is a matter of concern, and China has made permanent structures in several islands under its control. China has militarised artificially constructed islands while numerous countries have exerted military might to impose the freedom of navigation and countries like the US and Japan have also endorsed the freedom of navigation and operations (FONOPS) in South China Sea. At times countries such as Philippines, USA, Australia, and Japan have undertaken group sails in the year 2020 to counter increasing assertive posture of China in these contested waters.
The provocative moves made by China were not only in South China Sea but also in US Exclusive Economic Zone near Alaska. This provocation which came in late August 2021 after US has raised objections about Chinese ships shadowing US naval ships in South China Sea. As part of its effort in South China Sea, China has been deploying anti-aircraft guns, surface to air missiles with a range of 200 kilometres, sophisticated radar systems, electronic jammers, and anti- ship missiles. In few of the islands it has also created long runways and jetties to station PLA Navy and Coast Guard ships as well as developed underground bunkers for housing military equipment, hangers for aircrafts and maritime surveillance planes.
Chinese increasing assertiveness has come in the wake of many ASEAN countries making representations to their positions on the South China Sea issue to the UN body on the extended continental shelf. In this context the representations which were made by Malaysia were endorsed by countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, and few of the dialogue partners too including US and Japan.
The continuing Chinese assertiveness has also led to the formation of AUKUS (a trilateral alliance between US, UK, and Australia) which brings Britain into the larger geopolitics of the region. As it is well known that China is facing Hong Kong crisis and Britain being one of those which have returned the Hong Kong to China in 1997 after the end of the 99-year lease expressed its angst regarding developments in Hong Kong and the new alliance partnership is meant to address these concerns through a formidable grouping.
In fact, the developments in South China Sea have been also resonating in the ASEAN meetings in the last few years, and many of the dialogue partners have express strong reservations against Chinese militarization activities in the region.
In the latest edition of the ASEAN meetings the Japanese Prime Minister expressed strong support to ASEAN position on the South China Sea and stressed on promoting dialogue, cooperation and confidence building on the South China Sea issue. Japan also strongly endorsed the means to adopt for peaceful settlement of disputes and uphold international law as per the provisions of the UNCLOS. The opening of the representative office of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Vietnam is also seen as one of the measures to work on new ideas for promoting maritime security, stability, and building trust in the region.
Prime Minister Modi in his virtual speech at the ASEAN-India summit meeting stated that there is need for promoting a rules-based order in the region and strict adherence to international law under the UNCLOS. India has also been looking into more proactive engagement with the littoral countries of South China Sea and is expected to undertake bilateral and multilateral exercises in the region.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has elevated the ties with the ASEAN to comprehensive strategic partnership indicative of convergence in strategic ties. However there are apprehensions related to trilateral AUKUS and whether ASEAN and the new formed alliance will be countering each other. However, Australia has conveyed that under the new maritime capacities would help promote peace and tranquillity in the Indo-Pacific region.
Among ASEAN countries Indonesia and Malaysia were unhappy with the AUKUS because it was meant that it would reduce the relevance of the Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA) and would also coerce countries like Indonesia to accept the new geopolitical realities. Meanwhile, among the South China Sea claimant countries Philippines and Singapore appear to be upbeat about the new pact but have stressed on ASEAN centrality.
During the ASEAN summit meeting itself Malaysia has adopted a more proactive approach against Chinese claims and raised concerns over Chinese interpretation in Laconia Shoals. Malaysia is developing the Kasawari gas field while Indonesia is slightly cautious regarding Chinese activities in the Natuna Sea because of Chinese investment and increasing COVID 19 aid given to Indonesia by China.
US President Joe Biden has expressed solidarity with Asia on freedom of navigation and during his virtual meet with ASEAN countries leaders, he stated that his country would stand with defending freedom of the Seas and protecting democracy across the region. He also alluded to Chinese threat to Taiwan and unequivocally supported democratic Taiwan. He also noted that Chinese coercive military activities ‘threaten regional peace and stability’. As a matter of policy shift President Joe Biden expressed concerns about human rights abuse in Xinjiang and Tibet too.
As expected, ASEAN summit meeting led to strong rebuttal of Chinese claims in the South China Sea and strong support for realising the Code of Conduct in South China Sea. It is expected that the dialogue partners would be putting their efforts in protecting the maritime rights of countries claimants and raise pertinent issues regarding freedom of navigation and operations in these contested waters.
Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha is Professor of Defence and Strategic Studies, JSIA, Jindal Global, University, New Delhi.