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ASEAN Should be Prepared for a South China Sea Crisis

04 Jul 2024
By Aristyo Rizka Darmawan
South China Sea, multiple aircraft from Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 fly in formation over the Navy's forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). US Pacific Fleet / Flickr /

Escalating tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea are greatly concerning. ASEAN needs to be prepared not only to prevent conflict, but also to respond to it.

In the past several months, China’s increasing tension with the Philippines in the South China Sea has alarmed many, particularly within ASEAN. China has been asserting its unilaterally claimed rights against the Philippines in the Second Thomas Shoal with water cannon and area denial tactics involving large maritime malitia vessels and coast guard ships. For the time being, these assertions have been contained, but whether they escalate into broader tensions, and potentially open conflict, remains to be seen.

Amid the escalation of tensions in the South China Sea, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, during his Shangri-La Dialogue session, made it clear that Manila would consider China’s actions as an act of war if Filipino deaths occur. This statement was followed by the reminder that this was the same criteria for the employment of an escalatory response as established in the US-Philippine alliance treaty.

Despite the risk of escalation, ASEAN does not seem to have a firm and clear strategy on how it will respond if the South China Sea suddenly turns into an open war. It is time for ASEAN to begin thinking and preparing for scenarios that exist beyond merely the ongoing Code of Conduct negotiations with Beijing.

ASEAN is famously known for its lacklustre responses to security crises. A more recent example is the criticism heaped at ASEAN for its unremarkable response to the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, and the predictable nonimpact it has made in resolving the conflict.

Regarding the South China Sea, in the past ASEAN has undertaken a number of initiatives to manage the conflict, including countless workshops, meetings, and statements; though these have amounted to merely providing a channel for communications and joint activities. At this point, however, a thousand more discussions will likely not be enough to respond to the crisis of a potential and immediate open conflict at sea. ASEAN must make it clear on what it would consider to be off limits in the South China Sea. This red line must be considered, if for no other reason than preventing what has occurred with the Philippines from happening to other ASEAN claimants.

ASEAN will also need to seriously consider the limits stated by Marcos. If China intentionally or unintentionally kills Filipino citizens and open conflict with China occurs, ASEAN members, individually and collectively, will need some kind of a response. This is particularly important given that it is likely to involve extra regional powers such as the United States.

Certainly, any open conflict in the South China Sea will have an immediate impact on all Southeast Asian countries, if not the entire world. The coastal communities and fisheries will be the front line where major disruption to food and other mineral resources will occur. The implications will also be felt internationally. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, an estimated US$3.37 trillion, or 21 percent, of global trade transits through the South China Sea. Disruption to the trade route will greatly impact those most dependent on the South China Sea, including China, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea. The economic implications therefore are far-reaching.

All this is to say that ASEAN needs to be prepared for not only conflict prevention but also conflict response. This might include scenarios on how to secure the sea lanes of communication, what kind of assistance ASEAN might provide (and to whom?), and what policy options are on the table for the conflicting parties. ASEAN countries have long had conflicting interests and policies on the South China Sea issue. But if conflict occurs, the best response will require a firm mechanism on how to deal with escalation.

Currently, ASEAN has been relying on the negotiations of the Code of Conduct (CoC) to assert its ideas for peace and security in the South China Sea. But the CoC should not be the only mechanism for dealing with China. Indeed, it is perhaps time for ASEAN to admit that the CoC is unlikely to be concluded. The diverging positions between China and ASEAN claimants has long been a major obstacle, with little room opening for any impacting change to be made.

Under the current Laos ASEAN Chairmanship, no significant initiatives in responding to the escalation have been sought. One of the possible reasons for this could be the close relationship between Vientiane and Beijing. Next year the chairmanship will be assumed by Malaysia, presenting it with an opportunity for it to show its leadership and deal with the challenge of how ASEAN should respond to the very real possibility of increasing escalation and conflict.

ASEAN should take lessons from the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and consider the terrible implications of ongoing clashes. ASEAN will need to do more than its past best to prevent conflict and to be prepared for the possibility of conflict in the future.

Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a Ph.D. Scholar at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University (ANU) and a lecturer in international law at Universitas Indonesia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.