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CoC needed
South China Sea challenges pose risks to ASEAN unity

The ASEAN meeting in Brunei has ended with a joint communiqué which promises that ASEAN and China will work more closely to find an amicable solution to South China Sea dispute after Beijing agreed that it is ready to look into the drafting of a Code of Conduct.

A CoC is necessary to bring down the tension in the South China Sea which can prevent parties to get into a confrontation either by choice or miscalculation but the outcome will be a disaster for the whole region.

This time the leaders of Brunei, the current ASEAN Chair, at least showed remarkable courage and statesmanship to discuss the issue of South China Sea dispute which involves almost half of ASEAN members who are claimants of over 60 odd islands and tolls located in the blue ocean surface.

Last year, around this time Cambodia which was previous ASEAN Chair, had failed to issue a joint communiqué that created lot of misunderstanding among ASEAN members as it was against the tradition of 45 years history of ASEAN.    

The mutual understanding and collective security mechanism should be the ideal way to go for a lasting solution and it has been seen it has guaranteed stability and peace in the long term than trying to find a quick fix solution.

Last month, during a seminar organized by Centre for Asian Strategic Studies-India (CASS-India) in Thai capital of Bangkok on ASEAN unity and maritime challenges in South China Sea and Asia Pacific various experts from ASEAN region had noted that ASEAN will have to play more proactive role in tackling SCS dispute.

Director CASS-India, A B Mahapatra, emphasized the need to urgently adopt a CoC to prevent further escalation of tension in the region while cautioning that ASEAN will disintegrate if the body fails to protect the interests of almost half of its members who are involved in the SCS dispute.

“Today, ASEAN does not have the luxury of wait and watch policy as maritime challenges could threaten its very existence in view of changing geopolitics in the region. Thus, ASEAN needs to be proactive and bring all stakeholders through various forums to forge a consensus on a priority basis”.

The CASS-India seminar on the above topic was sponsored by Stratcore Group, which is a leading Afro-Asian information, analysis, consultancy and advisory outfit, catering to the strategic, defence, regional security needs of various countries in the region.

The South China Sea apparently connects the South East Asia, the Asia-Pacific with other regions of the world.

Commercial lifelines running through the South China Sea have served economic growths of not only the littoral countries but also the countries in the region and the world. Thus, it is ASEAN’s political responsibilities and strategic interests to address disputes, ensure maritime security, preserve peace and enhance maritime cooperation in the South China Sea.

Regional stability

For few years the continued indecision and collective approach of ASEAN to handle South China Sea issue has raised serious doubts on the regional bloc’s credibility. The Asia-Pacific region has many issues which can affect balance of power in the region but one of the most important issues today is stability in the South China Sea (SCS).

These SCS islands are believed to hold fish, oil and natural gas reserves. Sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea is continually being observed as one of the most important security issues for the 21st century. Now, even China and Japan are having problems over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute.

Any conflict in the South China Sea could draw the navies of the world to the brink of a war as interests might clash. The increasing militarization of the region is a growing concern for Asia and the international community at large.

Since all ASEAN countries are not equally involved in the dispute and consequently have no equal stakes, there is not one ASEAN approach to the South China Sea dispute. In fact, recent escalating tensions in the South China Sea have posed challenges for the central role and unity and solidarity of the ASEAN.

The so called ‘U-shaped line’ or ‘nine-dashed line’ map that is deficient in legality, continues to be criticized in the regional and international fora.

The claimants and the concerned countries have expressed grave concerns about China’s assertiveness in the region such as the diplomatic and naval clashes with the Philippines in Scarborough shoal, the establishment of the ‘Sansha City’ and its administrative system, deployment of military activities, prescribing regulations on search of foreign ships, intensifying law enforcements, opening international tender for exploration of 9 oil and gas blocks in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zones, the territorial skirmish with Japan in Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

All ASEAN members, China and other interested players should cooperate actively and work hard towards a solution to the South China Sea dispute and Asia- Pacific maritime challenges.

The South China Sea disputes should be solved on the common guidelines and principles of ASEAN.

As such, the parties concerned need to remain committed to resolving the disputes in the South China Sea by peaceful means, to exercise self-restraint, non-use of force or threat to use force, preserving negotiation process; clarifying the territorial claims at sea; refraining from activities that may complicate the situation while intensifying dialogue and respect for the international law, especially UNCLOS, TAC, DOC, Guidelines for implement of DOC, ASEAN’s 6 point principles on the South China Sea, ASEAN-China Joint deceleration on the 10th commemoration of DOC.

An early finalization of CoC in the South China Sea along with building consensus measures among claimants would make contributions to the creation of a peaceful environment, stability and development in the South East Asia and the Asia- Pacific.

ASEAN should give priority to the maritime cooperation, upholding the effectiveness of existing frameworks and mechanisms of maritime security concerning the South China Sea region, institutionalizing the ASEAN Maritime Forum and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum, extending their support for initiatives and new maritime cooperation models.

ASEAN should continue to deepen the understanding of maritime issues such as security, environment, science, management, legality and military cooperation.

Collective efforts

It is necessary to enhance the efforts of the ASEAN and its members in order to uphold its central role in the regional integration on the basis of ASEANS’s priorities and principles.

The ASEAN’s existing fora and cooperation frameworks should be geared towards promoting dialogue, building consensus, sharing universally recognized norms of conducts, mobilizing the nuclear countries to early sign protocol of SEAWFZ.

It is also imperative for the ASEAN to provide for standards, encourage its cooperating partners to participate in TAC in order to promote cooperation for shared interests of the ASEAN and the region. ASEAN has also been urged to coordinate these mechanisms to enhance cooperation and effectiveness.

ASEAN’s dialogue partners and outside countries have interests, rights and responsibilities to ensure peace, stability and development in the region. Therefore, they should continue to extend support for ASEAN’s principles on preserving security and freedom or maritime interests in the South China Sea.

ASEAN should continue to expand and deepen relations with outside countries in order to encourage them to increase cooperation, build consensus for common objectives of the region. The rotating chair of the ASEAN and the coordinating country for ASEAN- China relations need to be all ASEAN members and dialogue partners and also shoulder responsibility for priority to enhancing ASEAN cooperation process, including negotiation of the CoC.

Solving the South China Sea disputes would be a complicated matter that takes time and requires synchronized efforts from all concerned parties as well as the international community.

ASEAN should extend support for legal measures that comply with UNCLOS and conform to the committed principles of ASEAN, respect for selection by a claimant to use peaceful measures for the common interest of the ASEAN.

ASEAN should guide concerned parties to establish a legal mechanism that is more bound on conduct in the South China Sea based on legal regulations for the objectives of peace, stability and development in the region.