Greg Torode
Greg Torode

Can Asean unite over South China Sea?

Greg Torode considers whether the call for Asean claimants to the South China Sea to settle their own disputes first will in fact work

There is a simple, compelling logic to the call from the Malaysian foreign minister at the weekend for Asean claimants to the South China Sea to settle their own claims before raising them with China.

As the region is fast learning, however, there is little that is simple or logical when it comes to the South China Sea - the strategic and oil-rich waterway that is now the scene of intensifying rivalries that many analysts fear are lurching towards confrontation.

On the surface, it raises more questions than answers. Among the biggest is the likely reaction of Beijing. If China has stuck fast to its long-held demand that rival territorial claims in the South China Sea must be settled through one-on-one negotiations with Beijing, even as it continues broader discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, it is hardly likely to welcome any fresh sign that the grouping is ganging up against it.

As recently as three years ago, China had effectively silenced Asean on the South China Sea. Since members, backed by resurgent US interests, raised formal concerns about China's assertiveness in 2010, Beijing has worked discreetly but forcefully to undermine any fresh Asean unity on the issue.

The fruit of that effort, of course, was displayed in Phnom Penh last month when the annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers ended without even a routine communiqué amid rancour over South China Sea references and Chinese back-room manoeuvring.

Potential unity, then, among the four members with rival claims - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - could prove another target.


The region got a taste of Beijing's sensitivities back in May 2009 when Malaysia and Vietnam produced a joint submission to the UN to delineate their continental shelves. China protested immediately, attaching to its note a map that included the so-called nine-dotted line - the controversial markings that lay claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. Malaysia and Vietnam issued protests in return, along with Indonesia, whose waters are close to the southern limits of the line.

Then there is the prospect of protracted discussions among the Asean claimants themselves. Setting border limits is one thing, giving up bases on the Spratly Islands quite another. China and Vietnam claim the Spratlys in whole, and Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines in part. All but Brunei have military bases dotted across the archipelago.

Vietnam, with by far the most holdings (27), has the most to lose, having also never formally outlined the eastern reaches of its South China Sea claim. That said, Hanoi would find it more politically palatable to compromise with its Asean partners than with its giant and long-feared northern neighbour, China.

Strangely, the call from Anifah Aman comes amid a chill over the effort for China and Asean to hammer out a code of conduct to govern tensions until the broader disputes can be solved. This was supposed to be finished this year, but Beijing is showing little appetite, warning of "provocations" at sea from rival claimants. If Asean cannot even complete this task, the prospect of even thornier territorial discussions looks grim.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: United stand?