US ups the Ante in South China Sea; but Opportunities Open for ASEAN

A Position Paper titled “U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea” announced through a Press Statement by Michael R. Pompeo, US Secretary of State has created a new situation for the ASEAN and its Member States. The Paper avers that “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them, ”This is a distinct departure from the earlier US policy on South China Sea on which Washington had remained ambivalent for over a decade and preferred to not take “sides on the competing territorial disputes over land features in the South China Sea, we believe claimants should pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with the UN convention on the law of the sea”. There are at least four important issues for consideration by the ASEAN, and prudence necessitate that it engages proactively and take advantage of the Position Paper on South China Sea.

First, the Position Paper is a useful pressure point against China, and ASEAN can impress upon Beijing toaccelerate consultations for a quick conclusion of Code of Conduct for which the first reading of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text has already been completed. ASEAN Member States are visibly disappointed over the slow and tardy progress made so faron the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The document has been languishing for nearly two decades now. China’s attempts to reassure ASEAN Members States that situation in the South China Sea is stable has come to naught, and peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is being threatened. There are murmurs among the ASEAN that China is deliberately trying to delay the COC not with standing assurances that it is committed to the COC. President Xi Jingping spoke to leaders in Thailand and Singapore over phone and has attempted to dispel their fears but the other ASEAN Member States particularly Philippines and Vietnam are unsure of Chinese intentions.

Second, the US Position Paper is a powerful trigger for ASEAN claimant States to pursue globally accepted dispute resolution mechanism through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) or the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) given that repeated efforts to convince China to resolve contentious issues through bilateral mechanism have eluded them. The growing anxiety is over Chinese disregard for the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) given Beijing’s in difference and disregard for international conventions. China remained absent through out the proceedings filed by Philippines with the PCA and refused to recognize the award, that added to mistrust against China among ASEAN Member States.

Third,through the Position Paper, the US has overtly lent support to ASEAN countries against any Chinese aggression. US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has categorically stated that the US is willing to stand with its “Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.” The US’ new position on South China Sea is a catalyst and potentially opens prospects for ASEAN and its Member States to pursue resource development in South China Sea.

Fourth,the ongoing tensions between US and China has disturbed peace and stability in the South China Sea region particularly when the world is fighting COVID-19 pandemic. The current security environment in the region is tenseand both sides have beensabre rattling and conducting naval and air maneuvers involving high end platforms. Ironically ‘dialogue and diplomacy’ the two most powerful tools for resolving disputes and lowering tensions, have not been put into operations.

In the last three decades, ASEAN has led from the front to bring together not only ASEAN Member States but also other regional countries through a web of structures and engagement networks to address numerous issues that confront the region. It is not surprising that ASEAN has come to be labelled as the ‘Driver’ of the region and occupies this prestigious position. Diplomacy is fundamentals to the ASEAN and perhaps it is the most opportune moment for Vietnam, the current Chair of the ASEAN to discreetly engage in ‘open or back channel’ diplomacy and explore a dialogue between US and China. It is important to recall and mention that Vietnam was involved in hosting the historic Summit meeting between US President Donald Trump with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un in 2019. Deputy Foreign Minister Le Hoai Trung had proudly stated that his country is a “responsible and active member of the international community, wanting to contribute to the peace process, and that Vietnam's policy is to raise the level of multilateral foreign policy,”

Although ASEAN should have much to celebrate over US’ Position Paper particularly the claimant States i.e. Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, but would prefer diplomacy and Vietnam’s role as a facilitator of high-stakes talks between US and China would be a useful initiative.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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