The growing specter in ASEAN



In a few days the 35th ASEAN Summit will again gather the top representatives of member nations to discuss economic, socio-cultural, and most certainly political-security issues of the region.

The summit convenes in the heels of escalating incidents between Hanoi and Beijing. According to Marine Traffic, the Chinese oil survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 involved in a serious three-month standoff in Vietnam controlled waters finally left under the escort of Chinese ships.

China continues to assert its “nine-dash-line” claim of the entire energy and marine rich waters of the South China Sea. This claim was effectively nullified more than three years ago with the July 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA case number 2013–19). The tribunal ruled that China’s claim has “no historical rights.”

This historic Philippine victory invalidated China’s imaginary “nine dash” claim and clarified our entitlements including our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). That decision is now part of International Law. It’s a stunning legal blow that Beijing continues to disrespect with even more illegal acts of incursions and land reclamation.

Increased presence of Chinese ships has been reported in Thi Tu island in the Spratly in April 2019 and then the following month, Chinese coastguard patrolled the Luconia Shoals violating the EEX of Malaysia.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah in a statement delivered in parliament said that Malaysia wants to “control the presence” of warships in the sea and must strengthen its navy to better defend the country’s waters.

He said: “We need to improve our asset capabilities to control the waters, especially in the context of facing superpowers in the South China Sea,”

To assert freedom of navigation rights, the United States has been sending its Navy ships in more frequent sorties close to Chinese controlled islands in the South China Sea, the latest of which happened last month.

Here in the Philippines, the near fatal “hit and run” ramming of a wooden Filipino fishing vessel of a steel-hulled Chinese trawler are still fresh memories that has given a human face to the bullying of our poor fishermen.

This is the geo-political theater that the ASEAN is facing when the member representatives start meetings in Bangkok. Reviewing the fundamental principles that the member states adopted in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia of 1976, ASEAN states then committed to:

1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations;
2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;
3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner;
5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and
6. Effective cooperation among themselves.

It is to the great interest of 654 million inhabitants of ASEAN that all its nations must faithfully adhere to these principles. Threats of the use of force including threats of war is by no means a viable option for China or for any other country as this will be catastrophic to global trade and fuel supply.

Prof. Dindo Manhit, President of Stratbase ADR Institute said, “Amid all its geo-economics and geo-political challenges, ASEAN remains the best platform to settle differences and unite on key issues. Recent developments in South China Sea cannot be ignored by the ASEAN members.”

“This year’s Summit and Related Summit is the best time to advocate for a rules-based order in the region and resolve potential conflicts to ensure completion of an effective, practical, and legally-binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea”, Manhit said.

On the part of the Philippine government, the 2016 Arbitral Award is the strongest leverage that our representatives must use to inspire ASEAN states to uphold international law for sustainable peace and prosperity in the region.

Stakes are high and the consequences will hit all of us should the ASEAN fail to reverse this growing specter of conflict.