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Don’t expect Beijing’s South China Sea ‘breakthrough’ to weaken US ties with Asean nations

While Chinese state media hailed a new code of a conduct in the disputed waters as a ‘rebuke for foreign meddling’, Southeast Asian states are likely to be keen to maintain long-standing ties to Washington, Collin Koh writes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 10:35pm

With last week’s “breakthrough” – the adoption of a single draft negotiating text for the code of conduct in the South China Sea – Beijing appeared to have successfully “muted” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over the militarisation of the disputed waters by China.

The text also contains Beijing’s proposal that the parties notify each other of major military activities in the region, if necessary, and “shall not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection”.

These points contributed by China would continue to promote speculation over the code of conduct’s strategic ramifications for the region; not just on the South China Sea spats, in the face of perceived intensification of Great Power rivalries, and, not least of all, on those occurring between China and the United States.

The boisterous Chinese state media was awash with praise for the document; one Xinhua commentary even hailed it as “a rebuke of foreign meddling”. For its part, Beijing might have regarded its latest feat as furnishing additional ammunition for its long-standing opposition against what it has always perceived as “external interference” in the South China Sea.

Beijing also could regard the draft negotiating text as a credible repudiation of the US Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters and as a pointed response to American military activity in the region, which China has long seen as anathema to its national security interests.

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But does this so-called “rebuke” reflect a consensus between Asean and China?

Perhaps the issue is nuanced.

It should not have been missed that all along, concerned parties have agreed that the South China Sea dispute settlement would be reached by none other than the claimants themselves; even if the differences lay in whether an accord could be accomplished in a purely bilateral or multilateral setting.

If a dispute settlement takes a very long time to materialise, the onus is on every one to manage the South China Sea claims in a peaceful and stable manner. It is important to highlight that not only civilian, but also military shipping and aircraft, enjoy freedom of passage through the area.

But the South China Sea is, for all intents and purposes, an international maritime medium.

Excluding any country from these waters, including naval movements, is virtually unattainable. It is also hard to envision how China’s proposals for military exercises with foreign powers would eventually find region-wide acceptance.

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As one scholar pointed out, this would give Beijing the power to “veto” such activities.

Granted, not just China, but also some Asean countries, have their own unilateral interpretations of the rights, duties and freedom granted under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; that includes foreign military activities undertaken within the coastal states’ exclusive economic zones.

As such, little openly worded sentiment has come out of Asean, either as a bloc or individual member states, regarding freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, thus far.

Yet it would simplistic to conclude that Asean countries support or oppose such activities.

In the foreseeable future, it is difficult to envisage the association’s members, forming “coalitions of the willing” involving external powers, undertaking joint freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, as had been suggested.

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However, continued military exercises with foreign powers will most likely be retained as a national prerogative. Perhaps notifying parties in advance of the activity, as per the draft code of conduct, would serve as an apt confidence-building measure; but soliciting “no objection” from any party could be a bridge too far – at least for some Asean countries, especially those which have carefully cultivated, maintained and enhanced defence and security linkages with extra-regional powers.

In this respect, the role of the United States cannot be overlooked.

While much trepidation exists among Asean capitals regarding Washington’s long-term intent and commitment to the region, including concerns over certain inconsistencies exhibited by the current administration, by and large the US military presence in Southeast Asia is welcomed and seen as a stabilising force.

Asean desires nothing less than an inclusive architecture in which regional countries and extra-regional powers can play constructive roles to promote regional peace and stability.

For decades, Asean countries have built a web of defence and security ties with the US military. Capacity-building goes beyond merely providing hardware to include a holistic slate of joint training and exercises and information-sharing, particularly in the field of maritime domain awareness.

Given that Asean littorals, including the South China Sea claimants, can be expected to continue to endure varying shortfalls in maritime security capacity, the maintenance of links with the US, and taking advantage of opportunities to learn best practices and promote interoperability through joint exercises, looks set to remain the norm.

Examples of these links include Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training, a multilateral maritime security exercise that has involved Asean member states and the US since 2002 (back then initially called Southeast Asia Cooperation Against Terrorism).

Another case is the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercise series, customarily conducted bilaterally between Asean member states and the US since 1995 – pooling annual exercises dating from the cold war era.

Likewise, one could expect a similar attitude towards the involvement of other extra-regional powers such as Australia, Canada, France, India, Japan and Britain.

They bring to this region unique expertise and know-how that help build the Asean littorals’ maritime security capacities.

Not only that, their military presence in Southeast Asia is generally regarded as contributing to regional peace and stability.

Suffice it to say that the South China Sea problem is just one of many security challenges in the region: Asean member states face other, more pressing maritime security threats on a daily basis. Continuous maritime security engagement with interested major powers, including both China and the US, would serve both immediate and long-term interests in Southeast Asia.

The code of conduct process will be “long and complex”, as one Chinese official put it, before the code is finally promulgated. The draft text is, after all, a “living document”, meaning that it will be edited and updated continually.

In the meantime, Asean countries are unlikely to take chances in coping with the uncertainty. It is more plausible to envision them continuing to maintain and even enhance defence and security engagements with extra-regional powers, not the least of which is the US.

Asean needs to know the US has more to offer than China does

Ultimately, the basic premise stays, that Asean desires nothing less than an inclusive architecture in which regional countries and extra-regional powers can play constructive roles to promote regional peace and stability.

Nobody is about to be left out, and the thought of excluding anyone from this collective effort to safeguard the global maritime commons, is anything but constructive.

Collin Koh is research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.