Paper for the conference "Legal issues relating to China’s placement of oil rig in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf" 25 - 27 July, 2014 Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
The increase of the tensions in the South China Sea is an overwhelming threat not only for the stability of the Pacific region but also for the global security. Thanks to its geographical position, in fact, this area has a crucial importance for maritime security and for freedom of navigation. Located just behind some of the most important natural choke point for the international maritime route (the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Sunda and the strait of Lombok), the South China Sea is crossed by the main Sea Line of Communication (SLOC) that allow the human, commercial and energetics fluxes between littoral countries and the rest of the world.
Always more frequently, the attention of the International Community is driven to the development of the territorial disputes that strain the relations between the actors of this region. The overlapping of the claims related to the sovereignty of archipelagos, atolls and reefs in this portion of Pacific Ocean (Spratly, Parcel, Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal) and the controversies for the right of exploitation and access to natural resources in the related waters are critical factors for the stability of the area. Since the formulation of the so called “nine dash line” by China, submitted to the UN in 2009 to indicate the maximum extension of its claims, Beijing’s politics in the region has been seen as the main threat for the national and strategic interests of other countries involved in the disputes, in particular Philippines and Vietnam. The assertiveness of Chinese maritime policy and the coercive resort to its white navy to interdict the entrance of foreign vessels from the claimed waters are perceived by those countries not only as a burden for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but especially as a prevarication that reduce the sovereignty of other States above the section of sea at issue by preventing them from exploiting the resources (energetic but also ichthyic) in the areas.
The recent installation of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 deep water drilling platform near the Triton Island by the China state oil company CNOCC (China National Offshore Oil Corporation) is just the last incident that has raised the tension in this area. The harsh anti-Chinese riot erupted in Vietnam has dramatically underlined how broad the collateral effects of these tensions could be not only for the safety of the navigation but also for the general stability even inside the countries and between the different communities.
Moreover, even if China’s attitude in the maritime dispute is the most evident factor of the current destabilization in this region, it is right and proper to remember that the waters of the South China Sea are contended also by several States of the region: beyond the abovementioned China, Vietnam and Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are also involved in the issue.
Although, excepted China, at the moment the relations between other countries are smooth, and, as in the case of Malaysia and Philippines, it seems that they are trying to manage the controversy in a diplomatic way, anyway the overlapping of the claims represent a potential factor of friction and latent instability. The ability of the littoral States involved in the disputes to settle their issue in a pacific and diplomatic way has made this portion of Pacific scenario a bi-dimensional context: from one side there are government that, for strategic and national interest, are effectively willing to make an arrangement that could prevent an escalation of the tensions into a conflictual situation. At the other side there are some actors that, although taking part at the dialogue process for the stability of the region, are more inclined to implement an assertive policy to pursue its national interest.
So, to guarantee the security environment in the region and to persuade all the actors concerned to refrain from any unilateral action, it would be advisable to find a mechanism of collaboration that could enhance the cooperation and the stabilization of the region. In this context, the ASEAN could try to carve out a role in monitoring the development in the South China Sea and to become the real supervisor of the regional stability.
The possibility of rethinking ASEAN configuration for a new role in the South China Sea
The current unpredictability of the evolving situation in the Pacific scenario and the importance of the maintenance of the balance of power in these so important waters open up the discussion on the need to institutionalize a regional security architecture that could guarantee a multilateral cooperation in preventing a dangerous rising of the tensions between the actors. Nowadays in the Asia-Pacific region already exist different forms of multipolar institutions that try to bring together to the same table the countries of the Southeast and the Eastern Asia, main actors of the regional theatre, and other States that, for strategic reasons, have become important stakeholders in the area, like United States, Russia and India. This institutions (as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation - APEC, the Trans Pacific Partnership - TPP or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - SCO) not only are completing but often compete each other, with an inevitable problematic impact on the general efficiency of the development of a growth in the regional architecture.
For what concern specifically the South China Sea and the stability of its contested waters, the current controversy and the strainer relations between the littoral states is urging the involved governments to define an effective answer for the necessity of creating a security mechanism that could prevent the escalation of the tension and, consequentially, could assure the stability of the area. In this context, the ASEAN could take advantages from the importance of formulating a political strategy as main solution to guarantee the balance of power in the Pacific scenario for being accredited as the privileged, or the unique, interlocutor able to mediate all the controversies would rise in.
Actually, the ASEAN is the main multilateral mechanism already tested in several matters. The International Community often thinks about ASEAN as an economic-oriented organization, focused primarily on easing the flourish of member states rather than on creating an effective 360 degree cooperative environment. However, the long-standing relations with non-member states, Asiatic (as China, Japan, South Korea, but also Australia and New Zeeland) or “foreigners” (in primis the United States, but more recently also with European Union) and the attempt to develop new channels of dialogue to extend the cooperation have by now revealed the will of ASEAN of enhancing the quality of the organizations, shifting from “association” to “community” formula also for political issues. This trend is confirmed by the interest shown by ASEAN in coordinating several political institutions, such as the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), the East Asia Summit (EAS), the Regional Forum (ARF) and the Defense Minister Meeting (ADMM). All these forum of cooperation, in fact, underline the existence of a perceived need to institutionalize different tables of dialogue both inside the organization and with key actors of Pacific scenario, regional or external stakeholders, to define a shared agenda in order to guarantee a check and balance mechanism for the stability of the region. However, the modest effectiveness of these forums in the last decades has underlined not only the precocity of these experiences, compared to the lack of homogeneity between the interlocutors, but also the huge differences of respective national interests that hamper the formulation of a shared strategy for the region. Without a common strategic vision, any consultations between different sovereign states can be just a kind of compromises of every single necessity, not a real common policy for a comprehensive governance. In this context, ASAEN needs at first to find a way to prioritize the convergent interests between member states to lessen the deleterious effects of divergent ones: underlining the strategic value of freedom of navigation, the respect of international law and the regional stability could help the organization to create an inner consensus that would reinforce its bargaining power.
This is a moment in which the aggregation of sovereign states goes through the integration of the different national economies to come to a more comprehensive kind of union, which could be not just the sum of the different states but a new whole entity. Also the Europe, after the Second World War, had to find a way to create an architecture that could guarantee the stability of the Old Continent. European governments started to try to find a solution able to mediate between the ancient diatribes, mainly linked to the economic competitiveness, and the new challenges of the post-war period. So, the economic platform (at first such as the European Coal and Steal Community, the European Economic Community, the European Community and finally the Europe Union) has been a starting point to deepen the mutual trust and to explore the possibility of political relations between the actors. The integration process has played a strategic role for the reborn of the continent and has allowed Europe to build a system more and more independent from foreigner influences. Unfortunately, the process in Europe is not completely accomplished.
Looking at the European experience, especially in occasion of the recent Ukraine crisis, ASEAN countries could deeply understand how important a common political strategy is to have a real role for the international dynamics. The incapacity to express a single voice not only has eased the degeneration of the security conditions at the boarder of the EU, but has also create the space for other States to fulfill the vacuum and to increase their influence on the Old Continent.
Now, ASEAN has the possibility to take advantages from the flourishing economies of some of its members to advance the cooperation and to extend the mutual benefits of this dynamism also to those members states that depend on the trade exchange with other economic giants of the region, with inevitable consequences on the decision making process. Reducing the external influences could allow the organization to reinforce the internal cohesion and to strengthen both its credibility and the efficacy of the diplomatic tools at its disposal. This would make ASEAN a strong interlocutor for the stability of the region. In fact the accreditation as regional supervisor would increase the interest of the stakeholders for the real efficiency of the related cooperation and, consequentially, could raise the diplomatic and political costs for those actors who would not respect the rule of this mechanism.
As actually the Pacific Ocean is more and more emerging as the most crucial scenario for the global interest, the security and stability in the region has an inevitable strategic importance for the balance of international relations. This tendency, that seems destined to find a confirmation also in the next decades, could represent a further opportunity to regional organization, like ASAEN, to proceed in enhancing the integration process, supporting the political dimension with a shared defense and security mechanism. The consequentiality of this two steps is essential: as any military intervention that is not backed by a political strategy is destined to fail, in the same way the effectiveness of a common defense and security architecture has to follow the reinforcement of a real political community.
The political dimension and the development of a common strategic vision for the stability of the region would allow ASEAN member states to share also their military capabilities and their security expertise in order to create a defense architecture that could assure also to smallest States to have a regional defense architecture on which could count, making them more free from external links and influences. But this mechanism could be successful only with a real cohesion inside the organization. Like the Macedonian phalange, in which each hoplite protect his fellow with his own shield, also the most modern defense architecture needs to be based on the mutual trust and on the share of the same political aim because, without these two conditions, its mails are penetrable and weak.