Six countries exercise sovereignty/control over various islands and reefs in the South China Sea which comprises the Paracels, Spratlys, Pratas groups and the Scarborough Shoal. Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have disputes with China over several of these features. Besides, they are also embroiled in contestation among themselves but have so far chosen not to engage in aggressive posturing against each other. Instead, they have decided on a collective expression and voice (excluding Taiwan) against China through the ASEAN on South China Sea issues such as the Code of Conduct. Besides, they discuss South China Sea issues at bilateral levels among themselves. The latter choice is through politico-diplomatic statements keeping in mind their collective approach under the ASEAN, yet not ‘ganging up’. However, Taiwan’s voice that it is a player in the dispute of the South China Sea is often suppressed by China.
There have been at least three occasions in which the ASEAN Member States have not synchronized a collective positions on the South China Sea issue; in 2012, Cambodia had apparently succumbed to Chinese pressures over mention of South China Sea dispute in the mandatory joint communique issued at the end of any ASEAN summit despite the fact that “some member countries repeatedly insisted to put the issue of the Scarborough Shoal”. In June 2016, just before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) award was announced, Prime Minister Hun Sen had stated that he would not “support any judgment by the court,” Once again, in 2017, the ASEAN Member States were not on the same page during the ASEAN summit in Manila where President Rodrigo Duterte as the sitting chairman of ASEAN assured the Member States that a Code of Conduct (CoC) could be released “at the very least by the end of this year”; yet there were doubts about a legally binding CoC to put a stop to “unilateral actions,” because a previous commitment to play fair had been ignored.
But at individual level, Malaysia has preferred ‘quiet diplomacy’ with China with regard to the South China Sea. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s approach entailed “diplomatic, economic, legal, and security initiatives to secure its interests as a claimant state while also being careful not to disrupt its bilateral relationship with China”. This was labelled as ‘playing it safe,’; but at the same time, Malaysia also dovetailed tools of multilateralism and considered the ASEAN as a powerful broker for peaceful settlement of the disputes. In that context, it has supported “common ASEAN position” on the South China Sea and advocated the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. But in recent times, China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, a series of incidents involving violations of Malaysian EEZ by Chinese coast guard, and more recently the incident involving China air force flying close to Malaysian territory in the East forced the Malaysian air force to scramble jets, have led to vitriolic public emotions against China. The Malaysian opposition party Pakatan Harapan has called for “clear action plan” and a firm response from the Perikatan Nasional government which has a weak hold on power.
Brunei Darussalam the current Chair of the ASEAN has declared that it strongly believes in adherence to the 1982 UNCLOS for resolving disputes in South China Sea, promote bilateral mechanism for conflict-resolution and stressed the importance of the ASEAN-China code of conduct. This is in line with the ASEAN’s approach and pursuit of a collective way to resolve territorial and other disputes with China.
Hanoi had welcomed the PCA award to the Philippines over its claims in the South China Sea, and urged the contesting parties to accept the outcome. In its Note Verbale, Hanoi conveyed to the Tribunal that it affirmed “the Tribunal has jurisdiction in these proceedings”, and that the PCA’s final award was legally binding and supported peaceful settlement of the dispute through legal and diplomatic processes. There were at least two reasons for such an approach; first, it was hoped that the PCA ruling would help Vietnam in pursuing offshore energy exploration in South China Sea in areas Vietnam claims and contested by China. Second, Vietnam did not want the Chinese military deployed across the region.
Since the 2016 PCA award to The Philippines, Vietnam has consistently chosen to pursue diplomatic and legal options to settle its disputes in the South China Sea with China and ‘other claimants’. During its Chairmanship of the ASEAN in 2020, Vietnam was unequivocal and the Chairman’s Statement of the 36th ASEAN Summit 26 June 2020 expressed concerns over “land reclamations, recent developments, activities and serious incidents, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”. Vietnam’s focus has been on building mutual trust and confidence among the contesting parties which can be achieved only when the claimants exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities. Hanoi promotes peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the 1982 UNCLOS.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.