Rally around international law
Before the Nov. 1 holiday, Reuters reported that China was “poised for fresh South China Sea assertiveness.” Basing their assessment on satellite images and interviews with Southeast Asian military officers, the reporters said China was using its newly built facilities to deploy more navy and coast guard vessels into Southeast Asia. The next day, the South China Morning Post added that China had flown bomber planes near Guam, leading the forces on the territory to be concerned about Beijing’s intentions.
At about the same time, China and some Asean countries held a joint maritime rescue exercise. Those who participated in the Oct. 31 drill were China, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Brunei, and even landlocked Laos. Most of these countries are known to be on especially friendly terms with China. Four countries were absent: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
These developments make up just one snapshot of the many movements all over Southeast Asia in recent years. It is a confusing time for the region, which continues to cope with the shifting sands of interstate relations. With each country seeking to advance its own position, the uncertainty besetting the region only increases. For this reason, it is obvious that the challenge in the South China Sea must be continuously, carefully, and predictably managed in order for it not to undermine our collective security in the maritime space and more general security overall.
The important alternative is for all states to rally around a set of rules mutually agreed upon to govern their conduct in the contested waters. By this I mean that each of our countries must emphasize international law and the diplomatic commitments that have been made to all in the region. International law is the inescapable bottom line for stability in Southeast Asia. Most of all, this is an independent stand that affirms the principle that the rules of the game should not be changed to suit the most powerful players.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision on the Philippines’ case against China is an essential part of fostering the maritime security that we desire in Southeast Asia. The successful case not only showed that disputes can be resolved without recourse to force and in accordance with law; it has also become an example for the region to lean on in understanding its own rights and responsibilities.
Moreover, beyond discussions, we need to take concrete action, in accordance with law, to prevent conflicts, build confidence, and peacefully settle our disputes. One of the most important actions is for countries to exercise self-restraint and focus on peaceful means in resolving the disputes.
This brings us back to Asean, whose leaders will soon have important gatherings. Multilateralism has been shown to provide some of the best ways to resolve misunderstandings. However, in a region of states characterized more by their differences than their similarities, achieving consistent cooperation among Asean members can be a challenge. Nevertheless, building trust in multilateralism requires these institutions to prove themselves to be effective, representative, and transparent about how they represent the region’s principles and shared objectives. These principles undoubtedly include adherence to international law.
In light of the Asean meetings, Stratbase ADR Institute is hosting a conference, “Asean Leadership Amid a New World Order,” on Nov. 8. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana will speak on Asean defense cooperation. The other speakers are: Prof. Renato de Castro, Stratbase ADR Institute trustee; Prof. Masashi Nishihara of the Research Institute for Peace and Security (Japan); Prof. Christopher Roberts of the University of New South Wales (Australia); Prof. Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines; Prof. I Made Andi Arsana of the Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia), and Gregory Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Dindo Manhit is president of Stratbase ADR Institute.
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