During this year’s chairmanship of ASEAN, Singapore is expected to continue the association’s work in developing measures to help mitigate tensions in the South China Sea. In recent years, ASEAN and China have agreed to establish communication hotlines between their respective foreign ministries as well as to implement the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). CUES is intended to reduce incidents between the navies (and eventually the coast guards) of littoral states.
A framework for a Code of Conduct (COC) was agreed upon in May 2017 — an incredible 25 years since the need for a COC was first acknowledged. The implementation of its predecessor (the 2002 Declaration of Conduct) continues to be discussed.
In February 2018, China agreed to start negotiating details of the COC with ASEAN. To date, there is no clarity on whether the outcome document will be ‘legally binding’ as originally envisioned. This lack of clarity is due to the difficulty of establishing verification and enforcement mechanisms among parties with such highly asymmetric power capabilities.
One obvious shortcoming of any COC is that it is limited to China and ASEAN as the negotiating parties. The South China Sea issue has evolved from the original question in the 1990s of managing territorial and maritime disputes between ASEAN states and China into a broader geostrategic contest between China and the United States, with ASEAN caught in the middle. China has little incentive to allow its behaviour to be constrained by agreements to which the United States, or any other major power that operates in the South China Sea, is not similarly obliged to adhere.
China’s current willingness to commit to COC negotiations with ASEAN is likely motivated by a desire to undercut further involvement by the United States. Under US President Donald Trump, the United States has increased and upgraded its freedom of navigation operations in the disputed areas. The indications that Taiwan — with the independence-inclined Democratic Progressive Party in control — may re-emerge as a flashpoint in US–Chinese relations enhances the strategic value of the surrounding seas.
ASEAN is not oblivious to these new challenges. A number of constructive proposals remain on its multilateral cooperation agenda. CUES was expanded last year to include all members of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), a forum that consists of ASEAN countries’ defence ministers and their counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States. The ADMM+ has since 2013 actively conducted multilateral maritime exercises that largely focus on non-traditional security challenges, such as terrorism. In preparation for the ADMM+ meeting in October 2018, Singaporean Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen has actively endorsed expanding the CUES agreement to include the prevention of military incidents in the air.
Plans are also reported for an inaugural ASEAN–China maritime exercise that is likely to involve search-and-rescue and disaster-relief scenarios. This was an initiative that China first raised in 2015 at an ‘informal’ meeting of Chinese and ASEAN defence officials. Several ASEAN states are already engaged in exchanges or joint drills with China, such as the Philippine Coast Guard and the navies of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.
ASEAN now faces far more serious challenges in maintaining a central role in securing its own maritime spaces. Beijing has been offering itself to its neighbours in a new role as a provider of regional public goods, one of which is maritime security. This is logical given China’s legitimate interests in this area as a state with long coasts that face the South China Sea. But strategic distrust continues to get in the way of Southeast Asia’s receptivity. China has yet to successfully persuade other states that it will play by international rules and conventions, and this mistrust was exacerbated by China’s rejection of the 2016 arbitral award in the case filed by the Philippines.
Extra-regional states are realigning to try to balance China’s growing influence and capability. The revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the United States, Japan, Australia and India) and the US construction of an Indo-Pacific strategy that links the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and East China Sea are predictable consequences of China’s rapid progress in military modernisation and its growing foreign policy assertiveness.
If ASEAN is to mitigate the territorial and maritime tensions in the South China Sea and if it is to avoid being overrun by Chinese domination and becoming an arena once again of great-power armed confrontation, it has to more convincingly demonstrate that it remains a backbone of security multilateralism. ASEAN must prove that its cooperative security approach remains viable even under (or especially under) the evolving geopolitical environment.
Confidence-building measures are no longer enough nor are they bound to be effective in achieving their self-explanatory goal. It may be time for ASEAN to go beyond confidence-building measures and reach much higher than its customary preference for low-hanging fruit. The ADMM+, as the most inclusive and productive platform thus far, may be the best bet to obtain what ASEAN needs.
To ensure a strong ADMM+, ASEAN member states must also develop ASEAN itself, whether through ADMM or ‘minus X’ arrangements, into an autonomous and cohesive bloc that is a constant advocate and activist for regional maritime security.
Aileen S P Baviera is a Professor at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines and editor-in-chief of the journal Asian Politics & Policy. She also heads the Philippine-based think tank Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress. This essay was originally published on East Asia Forum, which discusses Economics, Politics and Public Policy in East Asia and the Pacific.