Over the years, ASEAN has already helped in many ways in moderating the involvement of external powers in our regional affairs—through dialogues, conferences and summits with different major powers from which the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was the most concrete indication of this approach. ARF has then, made it possible for the US, China and Japan, including India to engage the region while maintaining balanced relationships among those involved. However, US’s moves and China’s rise make Southeast Asia anxious (Sridharan, 2013). And all these superpowers have made the region a battlefield because each has its own agenda especially in terms of economics and politics.
There are a lot of possible answers for this. But let me share you some:
- In recent years, China’s ambition and assertion over the contested waters of the South China Sea have cause threat to Southeast Asian nations, while the United States tests its resilience in protecting its allies. (Kim, 2015). While China claims over the islands the Philippines asserts the decision made by The Hague in favor of the latter. Hunt (2016) in her report, said that China accused the tribunal of “professional incompetence” and “questionable integrity.” And the United States, even if they have no position in the territorial dispute, urged all parties “to avoid provocative statements and actions” so maritime disputes could be addressed peacefully. Therefore, superpowers must promote democratization and stability of shared borders and ideally, leave their vested interests behind.
- Since ASEAN’s establishment in 1967, it has been operating to support balance of power by opposing hegemony. This actually happened when Indonesia joined ASEAN, too during its foundation, to show willingness to exercise the policy of self-restraint. With the same thought, China participated in ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), aimed to constrain its hegemonic disposition, but it failed. Then with the issue of territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea, China and US are expected to tone down their assertiveness and exercise self-restraint to preserve regional unity and cohesion. (Emmers, 2001).
- These great powers just observers and peacekeepers in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling on the West Philippine Sea. The tension between China and the Philippines must be well-managed through bilateral discussions. The US for this matter should keep an eye on China should the latter make threatening assertions that could potentially lead to military stand-off
- As for ASEAN, it should assert its centrality by using ARF or ASEAN Plus 1 in a peaceful pact. But it should also employ economic sanctions to China or any country who would violate the UNCLOS and Permanent Court Arbitration (PCA) decisions such arbitral tribunal’s ruling in favor of the Philippines on it’s issues against China regarding the West Philippine Sea.
Finally, as the Philippines is also involved in this dispute, we should remember that “The battle to defend our sovereign rights in the WPS is also a battle for the hearts and minds of the peoples of the world,” said Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio (2020).
- Carpio, A.T. (2020). “Law and Justice in the West Philippines Sea.”https://www.rappler.com/voices/thought-leaders/opinion-law-justice-west-philippine-sea
- Emmers, R. (2001). The influence of the balance of power factor within the ASEAN Regional Forum. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 23(2), 275-291. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/25798546?seq=1
- Hunt, K. (2016). “South China Sea: Court rules in favor of Philippines over China.” https://edition.cnn.com/2016/07/12/asia/china-philippines-south-china-sea/index.html
- Kelemen, P. (1981). Southeast Asia between the Superpowers. Economic and Political Weekly, 16(37), 1503-1508. Retrieved April 24, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4370221
- Kim, J. (2015). Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea: Implications for Security in Asia and Beyond. Strategic Studies Quarterly, 9(2), 107-141. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26271078
- Sridharan, Kripa. (2013) in ASEAN Studies II: Advanced ASEAN Studies by Layador, M. G., Mahiwo, S. D., & Luhulima, C. Quezon City, Philippines: University of the Philippines.
- Weatherbee, D.E. (2019). ASEAN’s Half Century: A political history of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Rowman & Littlefield.