International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

6 October 2021

Despite a desire for peace in the South China Sea, ASEAN’s history and the domestic views of its member states may hold it back from usefully contributing to resolving the dispute, Aristyo Rizka Darmawan writes.

Since it was established in 1967, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been a cornerstone of Southeast Asian countries’ foreign policy, and the organisation was crucial in securing peace and security during the Cold War.

Moreover, before the establishment of ASEAN, there was much more conflict between Southeast Asian countries, making the region fragile, and its establishment has led to a more prosperous and peaceful region.

Indeed, former President of the United Nations Security Council Kishore Mahbubani even argued that ASEAN deserved to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for what it has done in maintaining peace and security in the region.

But today, this peace may be under threat. Many Southeast Asian countries face a huge test for their peace and security in the form of the South China Sea dispute, which might be one of the most complicated issues ASEAN has faced.

Above all, the question the region faces is to what extent ASEAN, as a regional organisation, can have a role in resolving the South China Sea dispute. Regretfully, ASEAN alone has little sway over how things will turn out in the South China Sea.

Of course, it must be noted that the South China Sea dispute is not an intra-ASEAN conflict. It is a conflict involving some ASEAN maritime member states, namely Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines, but the primary claimant, China, is not an ASEAN member state.

More on this: Is American assertiveness in the South China Sea good for Indonesia?

Even though Indonesia is not a party to the dispute, it has a strong interest in the dispute and has been involved in many escalations and confrontations along China’s illegally claimed nine-dash line in the South China Sea.

However, it doesn’t affect all of ASEAN’s member states directly. Other ASEAN countries, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, are neither a party to the dispute nor have they directly confronted China in the South China Sea.

It is important to note here that there are two broad categories of ASEAN member states, maritime-based ASEAN countries, which are mostly claimants to the dispute, and land-based ASEAN countries, that are not directly involved in the dispute.

Crucially, these ASEAN land-based member states, such as Laos and Cambodia, have often heavily relied on China. For both Laos and Cambodia, China is their most significant source of development through development assistance projects and foreign direct investment.

For instance, China’s foreign direct investment in Cambodia was $860 million dollars in the first 11 months of 2020, a significant increase on the previous year. With this huge reliance on China, these member states will not let ASEAN undermine their relationships with China over a situation in which they are not even involved.

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Even among the maritime-focused countries of ASEAN, domestic politics has influenced positions towards China.

For example, in the case of the Philippines, in the move from former President Benigno Aquino III to President Duterte there has been a shift of tone to a softer foreign policy attitude towards China.

On top of all this, the economic interest of all ASEAN member states is tending, in general, towards a conciliatory approach to China. In the last several years, China has offered a huge number of infrastructure projects to ASEAN member states as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Even if ASEAN wanted to step in and help resolve the dispute, with member states depending economically on China, it would be difficult for the grouping to take a strong position against the issue.

Also, ASEAN’s origins need to be accounted for. The organisation is not meant to create a military alliance, such as NATO, where all the members agree that a threat to one of its member states means a threat for all. It has never regarded a single country as a common enemy for all member states.

Even during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, ASEAN always tried to position itself as neutral in the conflict. This is what is happening again today amidst growing US-China Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, and ASEAN reiterated its neutral position by introducing the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Therefore, even though China directly threatens the interests of many ASEAN member states in the dispute, it seems the organisation will stand by for now, despite its desire for peace in the region.

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