Asean must insist on rules-based order
Two weeks ahead of the 33rd Asean Summit, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang confirmed that China had begun operating a maritime observation center, a meteorological observatory as well as environmental and air quality monitoring stations on its artificial islands in the Spratlys. While Malacañang refused to acknowledge China’s announcement, Philippine maritime expert Jay Batongbacal said China’s recent activities on its artificial islands should be viewed in the context of its efforts to gain de facto control of the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea.
As the leaders of the Asean member states meet for their annual summit this Nov. 13-15, the powerful regional bloc will again test its ability to use its international clout to tame the aggressive and expansive policies of Beijing in the South China Sea. International experts are of the opinion that, for the past years, South China Sea disputes have been Asean’s “Achilles’ heel” over its failure to take a unified stance on the issue.
Many have observed that China has shown a “friendlier” face toward its neighbors in Asia, including the Philippines. China has forged close economic and trade links with its neighbors, many of whom will also take part in its ambitious development plan, the Belt and Road Initiative.
Recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the Philippines for the second time under President Duterte’s administration. The Philippines and China signed agreements on humanitarian aid, law enforcement and infrastructure during the Chinese envoy’s visit.
Some political analysts perceive that
Beijing’s friendlier attitude toward its neighbors is all part of its plan to counter US power. More importantly, it seems that China’s “friendly diplomacy” intends to create more favorable conditions for its own development in the coming years. Many countries have already raised concerns about the “debt trap” they have gotten into arising from Chinese loans and deals, and some have been forced to resort to geopolitical and resource concessions to service their debts.
To fulfill its political and economic thrusts, China has invested $150 billion in Asean countries in 2018, based on a report published by a regional macroeconomic surveillance unit based in Singapore. The report projects that these figures could soar by more than 230 percent by 2035.
Since the historic arbitral ruling in The Hague that invalidated China’s claims to the disputed waters, Asean has continued to keep its soft stance on the issue. Worse, the Philippines under Mr. Duterte has chosen to “set aside” the ruling for now, in exchange for investment pledges and loans from Beijing.
This year’s Asean Summit is an opportune time to advocate for a rules-based order in the region, by pushing for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the early completion of an effective, practical and legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
While the summit is expected to focus on the issue of regional economic integration, it is imperative that the group should also tackle the geopolitical impact of growing Chinese hegemony in the region. The continuing militarization of the South China Sea as a result of China’s expansionism poses a serious threat to freedom of navigation and a rules-based order in Southeast Asia. In light of this threat, there is a need to enhance regional cooperation in maritime affairs among the Asean member countries, to institutionalize mechanisms for fishermen, for instance, to operate legally, safely and sustainably.
A louder, more unified voice of protest against Chinese militarization in the disputed waters should be heard from Asean. It should uphold its principle of centrality and independence to ensure regional stability and its long-held goal of serving as a rock of peace and pride in the region.
Asean countries are also in the best position to rally behind the Philippines to enforce the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling and promote the importance of maintaining regional peace, freedom of aviation and navigation in the region, as well as the peaceful settlement of disputes on the basis of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The challenge now is whether the Singapore-led Asean will be able to change the tide, or merely keep the status quo on its stand toward the South China Sea issue.
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Dindo Manhit is the president of Stratbase ADR Institute.
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