Developing the ‘Southeast Asian Sea’

12:51 AM June 08, 2016

There is today an urgent need to collectively develop and share the rich resources and energy potentials of Southeast Asia’s largest body of water. These should ultimately be for the social use and common good of the region’s populations, to peacefully sustain their future together. To attain a progressively principled agenda for the area, the vast aquatic mass should eventually be transformed into a “shared regional area of essential commons” (SRAEC), as this writer first publicly advocated four years ago.

The fundamental principles that universally bond human aspirations—upholding rights-based freedoms, advancing democracy with social justice, and realizing shared progress for all —must become a key basis for this progressive regionalist plan. As a collective developmental framework for the region, the SRAEC necessarily requires the active and consensual participation of the states bordering the highly strategic maritime zone. This regional project must thus be placed within a positive and forward-looking internationalist context. And as a first step, the region’s huge mass of water should be renamed objectively as the “Southeast Asian Sea” (or SEAS), because it factually lies within Southeast Asia.


Six states—Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam—have long been staking their respective national and/or historical claims on parts or the whole of the SEAS. In mid-March, Indonesia became the latest state to tangle with China over a subarea of the SEAS, specifically the Natuna Islands. Indonesia’s declared exclusive economic zone overlaps with China’s nine-dash-line territorial claim, and Beijing and Jakarta are now caught up in a delicate bilateral course over their dispute.

Aggravating this regional condition is the fact that some of these states label and attach specific country-oriented names to the SEAS.  In effect, they portray to the global community a misplaced pride in their own national chauvinism. While they may have differences with one another for obvious and various reasons, they manifest the same narrow-minded and jingoist-patriotic mind-set in the conduct of their individual foreign policy tracks.


Historically speaking, it is this national-chauvinist attitude of one country toward another/others that triggered the first interimperialist global war of aggression in August 1914. Indeed, one country reacting “patriotically” by employing largely combative means on another country’s government and its citizens can easily spark an interstate conflict. This has been amply shown in the past.

When states basically react to shifting undercurrents within their proximate external environments in an extremely nationalistic manner, the emergent situation can easily escalate into an armed worldwide conflagration.  In fact, the general pattern of the 1914 dynamics once again repeated itself a quarter of a century later to activate the second interimperialist global war of aggression in September 1939. Since the last half of the past century, most interstate conflicts arose because the protagonists mainly reacted bellicosely in protecting their very narrowly defined nation-statist interests (i.e., claiming strips of land and water resources).

Sadly, most of these international conflicts were rooted in a country’s reactions to its feelings getting hurt by another.  Thus, it usually boiled down to a war between them to mollify insulted national pride. Destructive wars became the normal default mode for countries to regain their “lost national dignity” on the world stage.

But in today’s highly globalized system, this wrong must urgently be corrected. Wars of aggression cannot advance a people’s interests within the context of a sovereign state’s pursuit of its foreign policy with others. Governments must start thinking beyond a nation-state mind-set to constructively reach their respective external policy objectives. In this manner, all of the countries now linked to the SEAS question should immediately start pursuing a strategically collective and progressively regionalist direction to peacefully resolve this volatile issue. The aim is to foster and create an internationally cooperative and just world order in the near term.

Accordingly, these principled elements need to be considered in building a future SRAEC for the SEAS.  In reality, such a concept is already in existence in certain regions of the world today and is, therefore, workable. Some of these area-based water governance models are: the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea (or the Tehran Convention established in 2006) involving five neighboring countries; the Lake Victoria Basin Commission involving three countries; and the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (1995) involving eight countries.

These regionally cooperative conventions focus on the protection, preservation, restoration, and sustainable and rational use of the biological resources of these bodies of water.

In the 21st century, the international community of nations has to urgently replace obsolete and regressive norms and forms of conducting global relations. A fundamental reframing of how human beings should relate to one another across borders means viewing humanity as a single living body organic to planet Earth, and not purely as alien entities that can be cast aside and separated from any individual state’s specific endeavors.


In practical terms, this simply means having a country pursue its own economic-social system by also considering the sustainability dimensions of its neighboring countries in equilibrium with positive regional dynamics.

Rasti Delizo is the current political affairs coordinator of the socialist labor center Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino.

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TAGS: Asia, economy, seas, Southeast Asian Sea
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