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"ASEAN Secretary-General’s Views on South China Sea", by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

Commentary 2016/15, 10 May 2016

ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh added his voice to the chorus of sceptics on the emergence of an “important consensus” on the South China Sea (SCS) between China and three ASEAN countries – Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia and Laos – during the 25th Fullerton Lecture organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore on 9 May 2016.

Mr Minh noted that the veracity of China’s claims of an “important consensus” was called into question when a spokesman for the Cambodian government denied there was an agreement between Cambodia and China on the SCS.

He also made the important distinction between two sets of interests vis-à-vis the SCS issue. The first concerns ASEAN’s primary interest in the SCS issue in ensuring that regional security is maintained at all times, whilst upholding the right of safe passage and the freedom of navigation and overflight.  To this end, ASEAN and its member states are committed to the Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea adopted by ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Phnom Penh on 20 July 2012.  

The second set of interest is particular to the claimant sates. In this respect, ASEAN does not have a common position on the merit of the individual claims. However, ASEAN – recalling the provisions of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation which also counts China among its 32 signatories – will support and coalesce around peaceful means to resolve the disputes.

While the Secretary-General shied away from commenting on a joint statement on  the outcome of the Philippines’ arbitration case against China, he shared his personal opinions that it was within the Philippines’ right to seek legal redress to clarify technical issues concerning the interpretation and application of UNCLOS.  

Mr. Minh was more direct in pointing out that the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) has not been fully and effectively implemented. He asserted that China’s massive land reclamation works and construction of huge artificial islands in disputed areas in the SCS was a clear violation of the DOC, both in its spirit and in its written provisions.   

It must be noted that at least three other claimants – Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – are also in breach of the DOC, but the scale, expanse and impact of the Chinese works dwarfs the works of the other claimants.  

At the end of the day, finger-pointing will not help to reduce escalating tensions in the SCS. The challenge for ASEAN is to find a way to ensure that its primary interest is upheld while ensuring that the strategic environment remains conducive for continuing talks on the Code of Conduct and the proposed regional Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Fellow and Lead Researcher for Political Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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.