The ASEAN Chairmanship baton has been passed from the Democratic Republic of Laos to the Republic of the Philippines. This also happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary year of the founding of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The regional entity continues to find its own path towards regional consultation and integration in accordance with the wishes of its members; diverse in political systems, states of economic development, cultures and languages. It operates on a basis of unanimity and ‘the ASEAN way’, whereby the nation-state is king and the principled position of non-interference in domestic affairs is respected by all. Despite this ASEAN has gradually overcome challenges in its diversity and moved towards creating legal frameworks and institutions, such as its Charter (2008) and its intergovernmental commission on human rights (2009).
However, ASEAN arguably remains vulnerable to geopolitical disputes, without an effective decision-making mechanism to solve disagreements beyond consultation and dialogue. No dispute has so publicly revealed its weaknesses as that over the maritime and territorial sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The sovereignty of these territories and waters are contested by Brunei-Darussalam, Malaysia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China and Vietnam, and the tussle between the United States and the PRC over regional spheres of influence in the Asia-Pacific. The era of US strategic dominance in the Asia-Pacific is slowly, it seems, being edged out and replaced by a new Beijing-centric regional dynamic. While the geopolitical future of the Asia-Pacific will depend largely on the priorities and policies of US President Donald Trump, it is worth examining how nations around the region have dealt with the Sino-US power, and whether it will help or hinder the unity of ASEAN and its role in regional stability.
Since the end of the Second World War, successive US governments have sought to promote free trade and regional economic growth, the country’s norms and values, and prevent the rise of a power in the region hostile to its interests. Against that backdrop, ASEAN was established in 1967 in an effort to promote peace, security and prosperity; an initiative kick-started by the founding five members: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. It sought to stabilise relations amongst Southeast Asian nations, but also across the Asia-Pacific region more generally. Given their overlapping aims, the administration of US President Jimmy Carter in 1977 joined the European Union and the Japan government in what would be the first wave of ASEAN’s Dialogue Partnerships.
ASEAN-US cooperation was predominately economic, focusing on trade, investment, and technology transfer and development. This partnership was enhanced and expanded in 2009 to include, amongst others, political and security cooperation. In addition to its bilateral relations, the US sought to maintain peace, security and stability in the region through its participation in the region’s multilateral security platforms, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). Issues that, to this day, continue to be important in their bilateral relationship include, but are not limited to, maritime security, nuclear non-proliferation, cyber security and combating trans-national crime, such as political violence and organised crime.
On 7 September 2000, the then Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong, speaking at the Asia Society in New York City, stated that although there was a “grudging acceptance” that US dominance in the Asia-Pacific had allowed for regional stability and prosperity, he was convinced that ASEAN would remain committed to maintaining the US presence in the region. Nevertheless, he warned of dangers that lay ahead, new priorities would emerge and geopolitical and economic landscapes would alter. Exactly one year and three days later, the attacks perpetrated on New York and Washington DC by the Al Qaeda insurgent movement 11th September 2001 brought that change.
Following this calamity, while the US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan shifted the focus of US President George W. Bush’s administration away from the Asia-Pacific, the PRC moved from inward-looking domestic development to international engagement. From 1980 to 2009, Chinese trade with ASEAN grew from $8 billion to $178 billion, according to publicly available figures. The PRC continues to be ASEAN’s largest trading partner. Political engagement soon followed as Bejjing became an ASEAN dialogue partner in 1996. However, in 2009 the PRC submitted a map with its so-called ‘Nine-Dash Line’ to the United Nation’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, with the Nine-Dash Line including 90 percent of the South China Sea. The area contains oil, gas and aquaculture resources and remains a strategic lifeline for the global economy. That same year, accounts of Chinese maritime patrol vessels harassing foreign ships in the South China Sea rose. Tensions peaked in 2014 when the PRC’s placement of the Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil exploration vessel, close to the Paracel Islands and claiming a unilateral exclusion zone around it. The clashes of words led to the ramming of ships and the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat. The PRC also blockaded the Scarborough Shoal, also in the South China Sea, and the Philippine’s access to it.
The PRC’s newfound assertiveness did not go unnoticed. In 2009, President Barack Obama initiated what would be the US strategic ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia. However, Dr. Rick Fisher, Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Centre, a think tank based in Alexandria, Virginia, underscores that despite this awareness, Mr. Obama’s administration’s pivot was more in word than in deed, and failed to counter the Chinese impression “that its economic-military juggernaut was unstoppable” and that the US did not “out-deter China.” With just one operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has created an impression that its military advancements and ultimate dominance in the region is unstoppable.
Beijing’s End Game
In its 2015 Defence White Paper, which outlined the PRC’s strategic aspirations and defence roadmap, the Chinese government outlined a new defence strategy that focused on the maritime domain and acknowledged a shift towards a combination of “offshore waters defence” and “open seas protection.” In an attempt to restore faith in its ambitions, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi declared in 2015 that the PRC had halted its artificial island land reclamation in the Spratly archipelago and in 2016 President Xi Jinping promised in Washington DC not to ‘militarise’ the islands. Both of those promises were short-lived; not only did dredging efforts by the PRC continue around these islands, but images have shown that all of the PRC’s seven artificial islands built in the archipelago have been equipped with ground-based air defence systems.
The installation of defence capabilities on these islands will likely not stop there: Dr. Michael Raska, assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, describes the PRC’s defence strategy as one which at the high-end of the conflict spectrum “relies on integrated strategic deterrence through a holistic approach that includes simultaneous and coordinated use of offensive and defensive electronic warfare, military space and counter-space (capabilities) … in varying security conditions including peacetime, crisis, and war.” Most importantly, it relies on shore-based missile capabilities along the PRC’s coast.” This includes weapons such as the PRC’s YJ-18A/B family of satellite and radar-guided anti-ship and land attack missiles, and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation DF-26 conventional/nuclear anti-ship ballistic missile.
Beijing has proposed a “new model of major power relations” with the US, as described in its recent White Paper on regional security cooperation published in January 2017. However, it also notes that the PRC is “forced to make necessary responses to the provocative actions which infringe on China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” Even in an effort to portray itself as a benign power, the PRC has made perfectly clear that Beijing considers the South China Sea as Chinese territory, and by extension Southeast Asia its rightful sphere of influence. While Beijing’s 2014 mantra of “Asia for Asians” has been re-branded by the PRC as an “Asian security concept”, this ultimately will not seek to let the US retain strategic primacy in the region. Should Mr. Trump seek to continue to bolster Southeast Asian nations to counterbalance the PRC, the PRC may seek to reaffirm its presence in the region. That, however, is currently easier said than done.
Given the power play between the US and the PRC, the overwhelming policy of choice for Southeast Asian nations has been hedging. This is not new. Dr. Malcolm Cook, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS (Institute of South East Asian Studies) Yusof Ishak Institute, a think tank based in Singapore, told AMR that “Southeast Asian nations have long engaged major powers to maintain autonomy from them.” However, with wavering US presence to counterbalance the PRC, the share of global arms trading continues to increase in Asia. Six of the world’s ten largest arms importers are in the Asia-Pacific and Oceania, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) analysis of 2011-2015 defence procurement trends. SIPRI states that, together, these regions account for 46 percent of global defence imports, with Southeast Asia spending $39.7 million to this end in 2015; an increase of 8.8 percent from 2014. SIPRI further noted substantial growth in military expenditure in 2015 by the Philippines (25 percent), Indonesia (16 percent) and Vietnam (7.6 percent). While Vietnam’s share seems rather low, closer inspection reveals that arms imports have increasing by 699 percent from the previous five years, according to SIPRI.
Although some close partnerships with the PRC have continued; for example, Cambodia and Laos continue to rely heavily on Chinese assistance and investment, some political alliances are shifting. Most surprising has been the Philippines. Despite overwhelmingly winning the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) case on the South China Sea in July 2016 against the PRC, the newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has downgraded and threatened to sever bilateral relations with the US. The PCA, based in The Hague, in the western Netherlands, works as an arbitrational service to help resolve disputes between its 121 national members. The Philippines government had brought a case to the PCA, which it began hearing, in 2015 concerning the legality of the PRC’s Nine-Dash Line (see above). Mr. Duterte has vowed to continue his course of action despite increased US security assistance to the Philippines which has increased from $50 million to $127.1 million between October 2015 and September 2016. This 154 percent increase in military assistance included communications equipment, small arms, replacement parts for hardware and coastal radar for maritime security. However, the US State Department halted small arms sales to the Philippines on 1 November 2016 amid concerns in the US Senate that these could be used for extrajudicial killings which have accompanied Mr. Duterte’s domestic anti-narcotics campaign. Manilla’s shift towards Japan, the PRC and Russia has been one characterized as a mix of opportunism and hedging, with an element of rejecting perceived US hegemony over the country.
Malaysia, too, recently turned to Beijing to purchase four so-called ‘Littoral Mission Ships’ of an undisclosed class in October 2016. Like the Philippines, this announcement followed international condemnation by several countries, including the US, over Prime Minister Najib Razak’s possible role in a national corruption scandal involving the misappropriation of finances from the state investment fund. Thailand, meanwhile, is planning to purchase three modified Chinese ‘Yuan’ class conventional hunter-killer submarines (SSNs) for $1.3 billion, although no further details have been released regarding the deal.
Indonesia has retreated from an ASEAN leadership role despite being one of the founding members and ranking as a top military heavyweight in ASEAN, according to the Global Firepower 2016 rankings. In 2016, it turned to the Republic of Korea for three Daewoo ‘Chang Bogo’ class SSNs and declared an intention to bolster its maritime capabilities with Russian Rubin Design Bureau ‘Kilo’ class SSNs submarines and Sukhoi Su-35 family fighters.
Singapore remains the staunchest US ally in Southeast Asia as it continues to face a hostile PRC. At at the time of writing (January) Hong Kong had not yet returned ST Engineering Terrex eight-wheel drive armoured personnel carriers which were impounded on their way back to Singapore from a military exercise in the Republic of China. This follows numerous incidents in which Singapore has been singled-out by Chinese press for ‘causing trouble’ and raising the South China Sea dispute within ASEAN. What fails to be mentioned is Singapore’s three-year tenure as the ASEAN coordinator for relations with China and that raising on-going disputes is part and parcel of its function.
Marking the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-PRC relations, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has underscored the importance of safeguarding peace and stability in the region by proceeding to “focus on cooperation and properly handle differences to accelerate the construction of a closer China-ASEAN community of common destiny”. The PRC has a constructive role to play in helping secure regional peace and security, but engaging and negotiating with ASEAN as a collective has so far not been its modus operandi. Instead, the PRC has consistently opposed discussion of the South China Sea disputes and insisted on bilateral negotiations instead. This is not helped by the lack of cohesion amongst ASEAN member states on how to view the PRC and the island disputes. As a result, ASEAN foreign ministers twice failed to reach a consensus on how to address the PRC and the island disputes in their joint communiqué, first in 2012 and then in 2016. Both times, Cambodia chose to support the PRC over ASEAN reaching a consensus.
Consensus is not impossible, but ASEAN would do well to develop internal conflict resolution mechanisms. So far, it has sought to base its resolution of the South China Sea dispute on consultation and developing a ‘code of conduct’. Progress, however, has been painfully slow. The Declaration of Conduct (DoC) of parties in the South China Sea was only signed in 2002, having first been proposed in 1992, and has failed to prevent the disputes from continuing to worsen. Negotiations on its binding successor, the Code of Conduct (CoC), have yet to be concluded. Although the Philippines has made the ‘early conclusion’ of the CoC its central mission, it remains to be seen whether it will have any practical value. Observers have floated the idea of developing an intra-ASEAN decision-making process. In other words, ASEAN should look to developing a system that moves beyond paralysis by unanimity. This, however, takes political will and represents a departure from the ‘ASEAN way’.
For all its challenges and limitations, ASEAN has done well. There is no ‘right’ path forward and ASEAN members are the bearers of their own regional destiny. The question is whether that destiny is equivalent to that which the PRC has in mind for ASEAN: as a community of common destiny, but one which through the PRC’s dominance in and over the South China Sea holds at its centre the ‘Middle Kingdom’, both figuratively and literally.