HomeOpEdASEAN and the South China Sea

ASEAN and the South China Sea


Timothy Mae Reyes

Territorial claims in the South China Sea are one of the most long-standing security issues in Southeast Asia. The South China Sea is an important economic and strategic sub-region of the Indo-Pacific. It signifies the world’s commercial merchant shipping. Yet, it endures unregulated and over-exploited fishing grounds and reserves of undiscovered oil and gas. As a result, it comprises several complex maritime and territorial disputes, causing conflict and tension within the region and throughout the Indo-Pacific.

The disputed region is bordered by Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. For instance, some ASEAN members including the Philippines and Vietnam, have territorial disputes with China over the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan all have claims to overlapping territories among the sea’s vast stretch of islands, rocks, and archipelagos. On the other hand, the Quad (United States, Japan, Australia, and India) and South Korea are  few of the countries outside the region that persevere to settle a rules-based global order, liberal trading system, and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Aside from the region’s rich resources and international trade, a country’s fear of being threatened or attack lies within the security and nationalistic claims. This includes China, Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. As such, China’s fears from being attacked from the Southeast, Vietnam’s foothold to avoid being surrounded by Chinese power, and the Philippines’ extension to its zone jurisdiction and responsibility westwards. The claimants to the land features and waters of the South China Sea are driven by their strategic interests. Thus, leading to tensions that threaten peace and prosperity.


China’s nine-dash line – a claim of maritime zone comprising 80 percent of the South China Sea – should be taken into view and be settled by ASEAN. As it was the region’s center of concern. With the presence of the United States – having a great power competition with China – the ASEAN is caught between two superpowers inching closer with bare knuckles. In the same way, this highlights a dichotomy or double dependency to ASEAN’s ground. If mismanaged, this contest could quickly tilt toward miscalculation and armed conflict. Therefore, ASEAN, as collective members of the Southeast Asian states, must unite to overcome its prolonged security issues with China in the South China Sea. And to strike a balance, and overcome its challenge – as an association – toward the situation.

First, ASEAN plays a crucial role in Southeast Asia’s progress in economic integration, trust-building, and governance by consensus. When it comes to security, relevant countries face a challenge to settle each one’s disputes over another. As such, the 10 members of the association still had not concluded the long-awaited discussions over the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (SCS). When China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi hoped to see the completion of the COC in 2021, there was a lack of progress within the member states. Likewise, this was the case with the 2002 Declaration of the Conduct of Parties for the SCS.

President Duterte of the Philippines was the first to warn over the situation in the SCS. However, no outcomes have been made among relevant countries. In addition, two months after, an encroachment of a Vietnamese boatman in Malaysian waters was killed by the Malaysian coast guard. Moreover, the president of Cambodia did not support any judgment by the court regarding the SCS dispute. Much as it did in Phnom Penh in 2012. Whereafter a meeting among ASEAN’s foreign ministers that year, for the first time in the group’s 45-year history, it did not issue a joint communiqué. Apart from this, Indonesia – a country that is deeply involved in the process of furnishing the new COC – became the first country in ASEAN to acknowledge the arbitral award handed down by the PCA of 2016. Despite this, no other ASEAN country has made a similar protest.

Instead of focusing on the compliance of China with the Declaration of Parties signed in 2002, most Southeast Asian nations remain mired in their problems. As a result, the promise of China not to militarize the contested areas in the SCS has continuously been transforming its artificial islands equipped with military-sized runways and anti-missile weapons and platforms. That said, ASEAN as a collective entity is challenged to approach or manage the region’s issues.

Consequently, if the SCS belonged to China, India would have the historical right to claim the entire Indian Ocean. According to Mahathir Mohammad – the country’s two-time prime minister explained that China, with its title, can see India in the same instance. Notably, the ASEAN state’s conflicting claims of sovereignty and overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZ) should be settled first under international law. Wherein other disputing parties can negotiate bilaterally to resolve disputes between themselves. As such, this practice can help relevant countries to achieve certain pressures on the negotiation table with Beijing.

Second, under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it is recognized that historical claims are not valid. The Philippines brought its case against China in 2013. As the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was ruled in 2016 follows. Nevertheless, China remains insistent on this right. China, as a signatory, lack the legal foundations under the UNCLOS. UNCLOS was introduced, and accepted, by the international community in 1982. As it happens, the United States plays a crucial role to bolster the legitimacy of the SCS. More than that, the US should sign and ratify UNCLOS as well. While the member states’ bilateral security arrangements with Washington, should be matched by efforts to shore up ASEAN’s capacity.

Given the situation of ASEAN, many of its states seek legal recourse to Washington. In this case, Washington plays as an external balancer or extra-regional power in the SCS. Along with Japan, India, and Australia in supporting roles. The Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam enhanced their military ties with the US. This creates new bonds of strategic dependence for Southeast Asia, while its economies mainly rely on China. On the contrary, Washington could go too far and provoke Beijing into a superpower showdown. Consequently, Southeast Asia is in a complex inter-linkage of issues with cooperative ties with Beijing and active Indo-Pacific policy from Washington.

Third, ASEAN does not function as an international judicial body. Nonetheless, this should not mean that ASEAN can avoid its responsibility. ASEAN should prioritize and facilitate the settlement of disputes. It should delegate enough power for the organization to take the driver’s seat. Alternatively, the organization has yet to develop the ability to lead on the South China Sea. For instance, a shared sense of insecurity among member states would alleviate its concerns not only of China’s assertive behavior but also could dismantle the regional body. Furthermore, to consult effectively, relevant states should classify whether they approach China individually among claimants or ASEAN as a group. Yet, ASEAN has no wish to turn itself into a party to the dispute. But again, this has a small chance to be resolved at any time soon.

Additionally, Southeast Asian claimants should see this as a concern to all of ASEAN. Article 1 of the charter says the organization’s purpose is to maintain and enhance peace, security, and stability “in the region”. Which refers to all member states. In particular, SCS falls into the geographical sphere of ASEAN. Moreover, Article 1.8 specify that ASEAN has the obligation to respond effectively to all forms of threats as it has the desire and collective will “to live in a region of lasting peace, security, and stability, sustained economic growth, shared prosperity, and social progress”.

Therefore, the organization must have the ASEAN-driven approach and find a rules-based solution in order to effectively manage the disputes. And should degrade each state’s national interests -which results in a reluctance to delegate sovereignty to ASEAN’s decision-making mechanism – and succeed the issue in the region.

The writer is currently an undergraduate student at Far Eastern University, the Philippines studying International Relations and Diplomacy. She is working as an intern at the Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies- IPDS and The Diplomatic Insight. 


*The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the organization

The Diplomatic Insight, Pakistan's premier Public Diplomacy Magazine, has been at the forefront of promoting Peace Through Informed Dialogue since its inception in 2009. With both print and electronic versions, this decade-old media house is offering research, analysis, and public diplomacy outreach to clients in Pakistan and across the globe. TDI is now offering Amazon Kindle Self Publishing Services to diplomats, ambassadors, political leaders, academicians, and other civil society leaders to be the next best-seller authors. With access to 11 global markets and the option to translate your work into 11 languages, you can reach up to 300 million readers worldwide and unlock your personal and country branding.

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