South China Sea Dispute – Response of ASEAN

International Conference on Changing Security Dynamic in the Indo-Pacific, organised by ICRIER at Hyderabad, on February 15-16, 2017

M. Mayilvaganan, Associate Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies

Abstract of Lecture/Presentation: The events following the recent verdict of the permanent court of arbitration on claims of the Philippines in the South China Sea (SCS) has not only demonstrated Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) dilemma but also reflected the lack of unanimity among its member countries. ASEAN’s inability to respond to the territorial disputes in the SCS in an affirmative manner and particularly, its watered-down joint statement at the end of its 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Laos preferring to avoid reference to the court ruling against China are a case in point. Interestingly, the ASEAN coexisted traditionally with the US approach as many within it considered the latter as a stabilizing force.

However, with the newly elected US president Donald Trump’s censure on its allies’ failure to pay enough for US protection and his inward looking policy have raised concern among many littoral states. Similarly, Beijing upping the ante in SCS part of its larger game plan—including ignoring the court’s decree—and its growing clout over the region has put ASEAN to the test. Should China’s military buildup and its attempts to rewrite the rule book including its yearning to have power over the sea lines of communication—through which about $5 trillion trade passes annually—increase, undoubtedly it will heightened far reaching implications for the region and worldwide. In this context, the big question is that how does the 10 member bloc going to balance their own strategic interests as well as the unity of the bloc when the SCS emerging as a potential flashpoint. Particularly, it is imperative to examine how ASEAN is going to behave and will it be able to defend its centrality and credibility. Unless ASEAN manages to finalize a fair code of conduct in the SCS with China, its continuity and legacy would be in the challenge even may risk losing its very raison d’etre.

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