The signing between ASEAN and China of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 ironically only kept the disputes in the region relatively quiet for five years. Since 2007, tensions between claimant states in the South China Sea (SCS) began to re-emerge and intensify in every aspect, with China being at the centre of almost all incidents. Since 2007, China’s territorial claim over the SCS has been decidedly enforced. An increasing number of Chinese modern patrol vessels has been despatched to the SCS. More Southeast Asian fishermen have been seized in their traditional fishing areas by Chinese authorities. In 2009, for the first time, Beijing officially claimed over 80% of the SCS by sending a letter to the UN Secretary General with a nine-dash line map. This move was followed by even more aggressive actions, among which was China calling the SCS its ‘core interest’ in 2010 and harassing and damaging regional petroleum research ships in their respective exclusive economic zones in 2011. China’s systematic assertive moves in the SCS have been furiously protested against by other countries, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
Amid the escalating tension and agitation, ASEAN hahos been actively engaging itself in managing the dispute. In roughly five years, from the Chair Person’s statement of the 12nd ASEAN Summit in January 2007 to the Joint Communiqué between ASEAN and China in July 2011, the association has issued more than 20 documents at various levels noting the need to manage the disputes in the SCS. These include the Chairman’s statements of two ASEAN-China Summits in 2007 and all ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meetings from 2007 to 2011. ASEAN leaders are committed to introducing a binding Code of Conduct in the SCS (COC).
While Southeast Asian claimants favour an active role of ASEAN and other stakeholders in the SCS, China always attempts to limit the role of non-claimant parties and prefer bilateral talks with other claimants whose Beijing has very much higher leverage. This was illustrated in the speech of China’s Ambassador to ASEAN, Xue Hanqin, in 2009 in Singapore that ‘[t]he whole issue of South China Sea is not a matter between ASEAN as an organization and China, but among the relevant countries’.Beijing’s position was again reiterated by Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, at the 17th ARF in Hanoi in July 2010 when he asserted that the dispute in the SCS was not between China and ASEAN, and any attempt to ‘internationalise’ the issue would ‘only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult.’
This study will focus on the role of ASEAN as a key stakeholder in the peace and security of the SCS. The paper will first review the history of ASEAN’s position and practical involvement in the SCS dispute, followed by an examination of ASEAN’s interests, responsibilities, and the mechanisms it has to engage in promoting stability and security in the SCS. It is concluded by a recommendation for ASEAN to play a greater role in the SCS disputes.
A brief review of ASEAN involvement in the SCS dispute
ASEAN was not involved in the SCS before the end of the Cold War mainly because the SCS was not an immediate security concern of its members (at that time ASEAN had six members, with Brunei being included as the sixth in 1984). No interest in antagonising Beijing, ASEAN kept silent on two incidents in 1974 and 1988 in which China used force to seize parts of the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos respectively from Vietnam. While ASEAN did not condemn China for these incidents, Beijing’s use of force to assert its first presence in the Spratly archipelago in 1988 may have sent the organisations’ members a message of a potential security threat in the SCS. Adding to that, the U.S. withdrawal from its naval base in Subic and its air base, Clark, in the Philippines in the early 1990s left that country highly vulnerable. Manila, therefore, pushed the association to take concrete steps to prevent possible incidents similar to that which Vietnam endured in 1988.
At the 25th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Manila in July 1992, under Philippines’ chairmanship, ASEAN Foreign Ministers adopted the ‘ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea’. The first ASEAN document on the SCS noted that ‘any adverse developments in the South China Sea directly affect peace and stability in the region’ and stressed ‘the necessity to resolve all sovereignty and jurisdictional issues pertaining to the South China Sea by peaceful means, without resort to force.’ Both the 1992 Declaration and the 1993 Joint Communiqué of the 26th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting invited ‘all parties directly concerned to subscribe to the principles’ of the Declaration.
The pre-emptive efforts by the Philippines and ASEAN, together with the Informal Workshop Series in Indonesia on Managing Potential Conflicts in the SCS in early 1990s, however, could not forestall China’s fait accompli tactics in 1995 when Manila discovered a Chinese structure on Mischief Reef. In various subsequent multilateral meetings, ASEAN reacted furiously. The statement issued on March 18th of ASEAN foreign ministers that year stated:
We, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, express our serious concern over recent developments which affect peace and stability in the South China Sea.... We call upon all parties to refrain from taking actions that destabilize the region and further threaten the peace and security of the South China Sea. We specifically call for the early resolution of the problems caused by recent developments in Mischief Reef.
That spirit was repeated three months later in the Joint Communiqué of the 28th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July in Brunei. Later that year, in December, the Bangkok Summit Declaration stated that ‘ASEAN shall seek an early, peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute and shall continue to explore ways and means to prevent conflict and enhance cooperation in the South China Sea...’
The Mischief Reef incident was also brought to ASEAN-Chinese first senior foreign officials meeting in April of the same year. Under ASEAN pressure, China, for the first time, agreed to bring the SCS issue into a multilateral dialogue at the second ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Brunei in 1995.
ASEAN’s unity and collective efforts towards the SCS issue in 1995 continued in the following years. At the 29th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Jakarta in July 1996, ASEAN Foreign Ministers ‘endorsed the idea of concluding a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea which will lay the foundation for long term stability in the area and foster understanding among claimant countries.’ This initiative was reiterated in the 1998 Hanoi Plan of Action and the process to create a regional code of conduct was initiated from 1999.
After three years of various consultations and negotiations among ASEAN members and between ASEAN and China, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was adopted in November 2002 in Phnom Penh by Foreign Ministers of ASEAN and China. Although a legal-binding COC was not achieved, the signing of the political DOC signified ASEAN’s active engagement and efforts to promote security and stability in the SCS and was hailed by ASEAN leaders as ‘a milestone document between ASEAN and China, embodying their collective commitment to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes in the area.’ In late 2004, a document on the terms of reference of the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the Implementation of the DOC was adopted. Since its signing in 2002, the DOC has often been considered an important step towards the adoption of a code of conduct.
For several years after the embracement of the DOC, the situation in the SCS was relatively calm. However, the negative effect of this encouraging situation is that ASEAN and China, to a certain degree, lost their momentum to head to a COC. Since 2007, however, when the tension in the SCS reheated, ASEAN leaders have realised the need to move ahead. The 2008 Joint Communiqué of the 41st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Singapore in June ‘underscored the need to intensify efforts to move forward the implementation of the Declaration, including the early finalisation of the Guidelines on the Implementation of the DOC.’ As tension continues to escalate, the problem of not having a set of guidelines was forcefully reiterated by ASEAN Foreign Ministers in January 2011. They stated that ‘[after] the 9 years of negotiation at the working group level ..., significant progress of the Guidelines has yet to be achieved.’
The new wave of China’s ‘aggressive assertiveness’ in early 2011, particularly its harassment of Vietnamese and Philippine oil exploration ships in the two countries’ respective exclusive economic zones, lead to a strongly worded and more determined 2011 Joint Communiqué of ASEAN Foreign Minister in July:
We discussed in depth the recent developments in the South China Sea andexpressed serious concern over the recent incidents. ... We look forward to intensive discussion in ASEAN on a regional Code of Conduct in South China Sea (COC). In this regard, we tasked the ASEAN SOM to work on the development of the COC and submit a progress report to the 19th ASEAN Summit.
At this same gathering in Bali, ASEAN and China also agreed upon the Guidelines for the implementation of the DOC. The set of eight guidelines in one page is noted by some diplomats and researchers as short and vaguely worded document which carries no new advancement to the settlement in the SCS. However, it represents a solid diplomatic effort, initiated by ASEAN to reduce high tension in the region.
Documents mentioned include Joint communiqués, Chairman Statements, Press Releases, and other types of official documents by ASEAN.
Xue Hanqin, ‘China-ASEAN Cooperation: A model of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation’, Singapore, November 19, 2009. Available online at Singaporean Institute for Southeast Asian Studies: http://www.iseas.edu.sg/aseanstudiescentre/Speech-Xue-Hanqin-19-9-09.pdf(accessed August 10, 2011) p.25.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs: ‘Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi Refutes Fallacies On the South China Sea Issue’. Available online at: http://www.mfa.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t719460.htm(accessed August 16, 2011).
1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea
1993 Joint Communiqué of 26th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting
1995 Joint Communiqué of ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting.
1995 Bangkok Summit Declaration, available online at ASEAN Secretariat Website. Italics added.
2008 Chairman’s Statement of the 15th ASEAN Regional Forum
2008 Joint Communiqué of the 41st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting
2011 Press Release ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, Lombok, 16-17 January 2011
The term aggressive assertiveness employed by Carlyle Thayer in his analysis in June 2011. See: Carlyle Thayer. ‘China’s New Wave of Aggressive Assertiveness in the South China Sea’. Paper presented at Conference on Maritime Security in the South China Sea. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, June 20‐21, 2011. Available online at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110629_Thayer_South_China_Sea.pdf
Joint Communiqué of the 44th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, Bali, Indonesia, July 19, 2011. Available at ASEAN official Website: http://www.asean.org/documents/JC44thAMM19JUL2011.pdf
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