“ASEAN must take the Lead to Remain Relevant in the South China Sea”, by Jason Salim

Commentary 2016/16, 12 May 2016

The US Navy conducted its third freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea (SCS) on 10 May 2016. USS William P Lawrence’s sailpast across Fiery Cross Reef elicited a strident response from China, which scrambled two fighter jets and despatched three warships to shadow the guided missile destroyer. This proves both China’s determination to entrench its position on the SCS as well as the unintended consequences of FONOPS in escalating tensions between the two major powers. If the high-stakes game of brinkmanship between China and the US is allowed to take its course, ASEAN may soon find itself in the middle of an armed clash between the two major powers.

In light of such escalating tensions, it is imperative for ASEAN to take on a proactive role in managing the SCS situation as well as its relations with the major powers. The avenue for ASEAN and China to make the most meaningful progress in the short to medium-term would be on concluding negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) of the South China Sea.  A binding COC that establishes a framework for peaceful interactions in the SCS would dramatically lower the chances of accidental conflict between claimant states.

The COC will lower the temperature in the SCS and create a conducive environment for the claimants to progress toward resolving their disputes. More importantly, a working COC that is respected by all parties may minimise the likelihood of a clash – intended or otherwise – between the US and Chinese militaries by reducing the strategic necessity for regular US FONOPS deployments.

The proposed ASEAN-China Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) would be a useful stepping-stone towards successfully concluding negotiations on the COC. Building on the existing CUES (agreed upon by the 21 member states of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, including US, China, and eight ASEAN member states), the ASEAN-China CUES would not only bring about closer coordination among a smaller group of signatories, but also go beyond governing naval encounters to also include those of coast guards and maritime enforcement agencies that are perhaps more active in the SCS.

Ultimately, it is up to ASEAN to take the pole position and put in place a more stable framework that will go beyond merely and quietly accepting FONOPS. The alternative to this for ASEAN would be to cede the initiative to Beijing and Washington and have their concerns drowned out by the white noise of Sino-US rivalry.

Jason Salim is Research Officer at the ASEAN-Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Assistant Production Editor of ASEANFocus.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.