If the ASEAN still believes that China will eventually move towards a more binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, the events over the past few weeks should be evidence enough that this may not be achieved. Increasingly, Beijing's efforts to push the normative order, particularly in regards to the maritime spaces vis-a-vis the ASEAN states, is a stark revelation of the Chinese ability to speak with a forked tongue.
On November 22, the ASEAN and China concluded a Special Summit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations. The corollary of this event's objective was to emphasise how this partnership will evolve in the future; wherein it stated that the elevation of ties to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership will highlight "peace, security, prosperity and sustainable development". In light of the events that took place before and after the special summit, perhaps it would be important to question, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, as to whose peace, security, prosperity and sustainable development did the summit actually address?
It's interesting to note that the November summit of the ASEAN-China ties took shape in the background of developments in the South China Sea in mid-November where Beijing and the Philippines had a stand-off over the Second Thomas Shoal, also known as the Ayungin Shoal, a territory contested between the two nations since 1999. The stand-off took place over the Philippines' efforts to deliver supplies to its defence personnel stationed on this shoal. The Ayungin Shoal is also the region where a stranded vessel known as the Sierra Madre has been a bone of contention for more than two decades and the stationing of troops there has been to ensure that incursions from China do not go undetected. This latest incident saw a scathing response from the Filipino Secretary of State Teodoro Locsin, who categorically stated that the violation of movement of Filipino naval vessels went against Article 4 of the Philippines-United States Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), pushing the boundaries of the US-China rivalry into stark focus. Locsin reiterated the significance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) by stating that the Ayungin Shoal was an integral part of the Philippines. He also stated that the region falls under the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, which is clearly recognised under the tenets of the UNCLOS. Chinese assertions in the region do not recognise UNCLOS and are based on its claims to the nine-dash line that covers almost 80 per cent of the South China Sea waters as its own. China has even rejected the ruling of the PCA in 2016.
Similarly on 1 December 2021, Chinese vessels objected to the Indonesian exploration for oil off the Natuna islands in the north Natuna Sea, which Beijing calls the South China Sea. The incursions by the Chinese into these waters started a few months ago, interestingly in the immediate aftermath of the AUKUS deal when Indonesia expressed concerns over the potential trend of an impending arms race in the regional waters. This long-standing incursion took more focus with objections to Indonesian exploration in its own Exclusive Economic Zone. Indonesia has been repeatedly highlighting the relevance of international law and the UNCLOS, even as the friction with China over the Natuna region has been evident from almost 2014. Indonesia's response to the repeated violations into its EEZ has been to augment its defence capabilities around the Natuna archipelago, where the Natuna Besar Island has seen a revamping of both defence and naval personnel.
It is important to view the elevation of the ASEAN-China ties to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) within the context of these incidents in the South China Sea. Even as the CSP is a broad based approach to furthering ties between the two and encompasses political, economic and security related matters, the tangibles of this elevation may remain merely rhetorical. During the East Asia Summit (EAS) in October 2021, the ASEAN raised the level of its ties with Australia to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, belying the view that there were strained relations with Australia post the AUKUS deal. So the CSP in itself may be seen as a form of diplomatic leverage, with little or no binding impact.
A close reading of the Joint Statement issued at the conclusion of the summit reveals four core areas of challenge in the China-ASEAN ties, even as the effort to portray a business as usual sentiment falls woefully short. First, it claims to reaffirm the principles of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, an approach led by the organisation that falls short of recognising the tremendous transitions shaping the region; second, under the political-security cooperation, it talks of mutual respect under international law and here China's repeated incursions testify to its unwillingness to respect the letter and spirit of the Joint Statement; third, it addresses the commitment to the UNCLOS, which has been repeatedly violated by China; fourth, it states that ASEAN and China will move from a DOC to a COC on the principles enshrined in UNCLOS. These latter two aspects of the Joint Statement are farcical as Chinese actions have left no one in doubt about its lack of adherence to the UNCLOS. As the gap between word and action is critical in understanding the language of interstate behaviour, China's ability to speak in a forked tongue needs to be recognised by the ASEAN.
(The writer is a professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)