The Quintessential Test of ASEAN Centrality: Changing the Paradigm in the South China Sea

  • photo courtesy of Rod Waddington
    Jun 21, 2011

    Ironically, the South China Sea physically connects a majority of the nations in East Asia and at the same time divides them. No country concerned with promoting peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region has the luxury of turning away from this riddle. In fact, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the self-proclaimed center of new regional security and trade architecture, faces a historic challenge in this context. It must lead in converting the South China Sea from a sea of potential conflict to waters that bind and propel Asian prosperity.

    ASEAN has the strategic position to drive this change, but it will take new levels of political courage and coordination, institutionalized regional structures, and unprecedented levels of proactive diplomacy. ASEAN’s responsibility is clear. It is the glue that binds key actors together, either through direct membership or via regional structures such as the ASEAN + 1, ASEAN + 3, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), East Asia Summit (EAS), and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

    The South China Sea is vital not only to ASEAN, but to global stability and economic growth. It is home to vital sea-lanes of navigation that enable more world trade than any other body of water. It also is home to navies will dominate the world’s oceans for the rest of the twenty-first century. Finally, it contains key resources, from its marine life to its natural resources, needed to fuel the economic engine of Asia-Pacific growth.

    Currently, tensions in these vital waters are extremely high. China is asserting historical and arcane legal claims, which it says it is interpreting as defining its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, defined by a very aggressive 9- or 10-dot line that runs to the beachfront of its neighbors’ land masses. Other countries have disputes—some bilateral, some multilateral—over various other parts of the Sea.

    In addition, the United States and other nations have asserted their interests in freedom of navigation and resolution of disputes, both maritime and territorial.

    Recommendations for resolving the conflict and converting the South China Sea from a pool of troubles and danger to one of opportunities revolve around ASEAN and can be seen as a real test of whether ASEAN’s centrality is a strategic framework that can promote peace and economic stability—and therefore strong growth—in Asia. The purpose of this commentary is to explore some of these recommendations:

    1. Enhance predictability and transparency. Confrontation and conflict arise when countries are unclear on one another’s needs and intentions. ASEAN can promote confidence building and develop trust by using the ADMM+, ARF, and the EAS to encourage member countries to share and discuss security and defense strategies (e.g., standardize the practice, shared by some in the region, of publishing defense planning white papers).
    2. Invest in track 2 diplomacy. Given the stakes in the South China Sea, current levels of track 2 and track 1.5 diplomacy are at prehistoric levels, particularly in ASEAN. All interested countries should invest in a paradigm-changing level of dialogue on the South China Sea and seek to promote and enhance these discussions to illuminate policy-level discussions in official regional forums, such as ARF, ADMM+, and EAS.
    3. Strengthen ASEAN institutions. ASEAN members have purposely underfunded and understaffed the ASEAN Secretariat to ensure no trespassing on sovereign concerns. However, as the South China Sea and other regional conflicts and the pace of regional economic integration clearly indicate, it is time to move to the next level and strengthen ASEAN to promote security and economic growth.
    4. Commit to meaningful dialogue and diplomacy. ASEAN will set the agenda for the most important regional institutions capable of dealing with the South China Sea challenges, namely ARF, ADMM+, and EAS. ASEAN must commit to tabling the real issues—even if considered sensitive—at these forums to ensure laser-like focus on the hard issues and to prepare recommendations and solutions for leaders at the EAS. If these meetings avoid or paper over real concerns and issues, they actually aggravate the situation and enhance the risk of confrontation and conflict.
    5. Engage in proactive diplomacy. ASEAN can and should do more in the area of diplomacy. It cannot afford war or conflict in the South China Sea, yet it has assumed a reactive stance, interpreting the intentions and awaiting signals from larger, more powerful nations. ASEAN could play a more proactive role in encouraging its members and partners to resolve disputes using existing legal and multilateral mechanisms, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Court of Justice, and other world-class arbitration mechanisms. For instance, it would be useful to have an ASEAN envoy sent to Washington to meet administration and congressional leaders to encourage the United States to ratify the UNCLOS.
    6. Integrate economies. While ASEAN appears to have been proactive in encouraging regional economic integration through negotiating free-trade agreements with key partners, the fact is that the private sector has driven integration through rational and commercially motivated investments and development of new markets. Governments could and should do more to follow through on deepening and broadening trade and investment linkages by markedly increasing harmonization and standardization of investment rules, implementing common customs and clearance measures, and developing practical joint development models—in consultation with the private sector—that would promote safe and environmentally sustainable development of resources in the South China Sea in ways that would benefit all countries.

    These are framework recommendations for how ASEAN and its partners could change the paradigm around discussions about the South China Sea from trying to define differences to a proactive search for common interest and mutual benefit.

    ASEAN has an opportunity to take on this historic challenge and succeed with strong support from its partners in the East Asia Summit and beyond. Only history will be able to judge the impact of ASEAN’s collective decision on whether to engage and lead or to assume a reactive posture and deal with the consequences.

    Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.