US President Joe Biden (centre) takes part in the Asean-US Summit held online on October 26. Despite claims of supporting Asean centrality, the US and its allies’ actions have undermined regional security. Photo: AFP
Mark J. Valencia
Mark J. Valencia

South China Sea: Asean must stand up to the US and China to preserve its centrality

  • The primary players in the disputes around the South China Sea say they support Asean centrality, but their actions tell a different story
  • The US and its partners have asserted themselves in part because they felt Asean was ineffective in dealing with regional security issues

One of Asean’s core aspirations is centrality in security affairs in the region. There is a range of interpretations of what that means. A limited view is that it means the organisation is situated in and must remain at the core of Southeast Asian forums such as the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.

But some in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations itself suggest it means it wants to play a central role in managing security issues in its region. Australia, China, Japan and the United States say they support Asean centrality, but their actions threaten to undermine it.
That was evident before and even during the recent Asean summits. The US and China used them to verbally attack each other and promote their own visions for the region that differ significantly from Asean’s.

The outsiders hijacked the focus of the East Asia Summit with their contest for domination of the South China Sea and the region. In the run-up to the meetings, the US and China undertook duelling military exercises.

The US and its allies carried out major exercises in the Philippine Sea. Meanwhile, the Chinese and Russian navies carried out joint military exercises in areas bordering the South China Sea.
Beijing also undertook massive military air sorties through Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. During the meetings, a US carrier strike group held joint exercises with a Japanese helicopter carrier in the South China Sea.


Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes

Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes
US President Joe Biden told Asean that America was committed to Asean centrality, but US actions in the region tell another story. China also claims to support Asean centrality but then acts unilaterally in ways that undermine it.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison each affirmed their country’s support for Asean centrality. Morrison also told Asean that the Aukus agreement reinforces Canberra’s backing for an Asean-led regional architecture.
Not everyone in Asean was convinced, even US allies and partners. Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said it was reasonable for Southeast Asia to call for the US and China to manage their competition responsibly and for external powers to engage the region on “our own merits rather than be seen purely through the lens of the US-China competition”.

Nguyen Hung Son, vice-president of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, said of Aukus that, “One should ask what is the relevance of the Asean and whether the centrality that Asean and its partners talk about is just lip service or it is something they really attend to.”

Aukus defence partnership gets the Philippines’ backing

Referring to the South China Sea disputes at the Asean Summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said: “We have come a long way in keeping the peace and promoting prosperity in our region. We must not allow those with diverging interests to make our efforts fail.”
US-driven security partnerships in the region risk raising the likelihood of a US-China clash in the South China Sea. These strategic moves are meant to counter what the US and its allies see as the “ China threat” in Asia. China’s reaction is likely to make the situation even more dangerous.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad for short, is a forum of Australia, India, Japan and the US whose goal is maintaining a “ free and open Indo-Pacific”. Quad leaders met in Washington last month and reaffirmed they would “champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”.
This statement alludes to what they consider China’s illegitimate claims in the South China Sea and its threat to freedom of navigation there. The US appears to be pushing the group towards becoming an anti-China security partnership despite reservations among some members.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained
Under Aukus, the US and Britain will provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines and underwater drone technology. A major use of these assets will be to maintain the balance of power in the South China Sea.

The US and Australia also agreed to rotating US fighters and bombers to northern Australia and Canberra may give Washington more rotational basing for its submarines in Perth. The US will expand its use of Australia as a base for surveillance and deterrence of China in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Contrary to supporting Asean centrality, the US and its partners undertook these actions in part because they felt Asean was ineffective in dealing with regional security issues. Asean countries need to hold the US and its allies to their words.

Asean members divided on standing with China over US-led security pact

They should press their “pledged partners in peace” to uphold the principles of the Bali Treaty. These include the right of every state to be free from external interference, subversion or coercion, and for the settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means, along with renunciation of the threat or use of force.

One possibility is for a group of core Asean members to make a multilateral public appeal to the US and China to restrain themselves. If nothing else, it would deprive them of the excuse of acting to help Southeast Asian countries. Perhaps South China Sea claimants could form an Asean subcommittee to negotiate with China while the larger organisation tries to fend off the US.

It is clear the main players in the struggle for control in the South China Sea are saying one thing and doing another. Asean sees through this, but what it can and will do about it is another matter.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China