China-ASEAN Cooperation: A Mirage?

China-ASEAN Cooperation: A Mirage?

The joint exercises with ASEAN were planned for late October 2018 and are officially for “rescue operations in the event of a major maritime disaster”. However, what makes this deal interesting is that this invitation comes despite China’s disputes with several ASEAN members over islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

During early August 2018, there were a few reports on China extending invitation to member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to hold joint military maneuvers – off the coast of China’s Guangdong Province. The joint exercises with ASEAN were planned for late October 2018 and are officially for “rescue operations in the event of a major maritime disaster”. However, what makes this deal interesting is that this invitation comes despite China’s disputes with several ASEAN members over islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

The Relationship-Baggage:

The main needle pricking relations between China-ASEAN is the former being too assertive – especially on those contesting its geo-political space. But this is nothing new. The perfect example is the dispute in the South China Sea regarding the Nine-Dash Line (NDL). Beijing’s claims have resulted in disputes with other coastal states – such as Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines, in 2016, had even taken China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). China, however, rejected the ruling – no surprise there!

These tensions continue to fester because there is no consensus among the Southeast Asian governments on how to deal with China. As a result, Beijing engages with each disputant bilaterally; ultimately using its superior military and economic power to impose its preferred solution in the matter.

The United States’ role in the region is also worth mentioning. It has traditional allies like the Philippines in the region. At the same time, the US also conducts maritime exercises with Japan. It is safe to say that these situations do not please China. Indeed, Beijing has stated specifically that joint exercises with “countries from outside the region” must be announced “beforehand”. It clearly looks directed against America – the superpower which has openly spoken out in defense of free passage and against the militarization of small islands in the region. According to a report by Kyodo News (leading news agency in Japan), China has further insisted that if no consensus was reached about conducting such drills, then, they should not take place at all!i

Easing of Tensions?

Some might argue that there has been a slight easing of tensions between China and the ASEAN countries. The most recent reason cited is that these 11 governments produced a draft Code of Conduct for the South China Sea at the 51st Annual Foreign Ministers’ Meeting between China and ASEAN member states in August 2018, at Singapore. This document has been nearly two decades in the making – its basic framework agreed way back in 2002. It called for peaceful resolution of disputes and self-restraint. However, being merely a declaration, it lacked the force of law. As such, it has been violated often enough – especially by China.

Other instances cited for improving relations between the two is the ASEAN-China maritime exercise – which was held in August, 2018; and the inaugural field-training exercise which is proposed to be held in October this year. The joint military exercise is seen by analysts as a precursor to the latter.

The idea of military cooperation between China and ASEAN is not new (it has been suggested in 2015). However, as Prashanth Parameswaran writes for The Diplomat: “the very fact that it is scheduled for this year is testament to broader changes that have been underway over the past few years, both in the region more broadly as well as in terms of the South China Sea more specifically.”ii

What Lies Ahead:

The readiness of ASEAN governments to join the exercise despite China’s deployment of heavy military equipment, bombers and other aircraft to disputed territory looks like acquiescence to the regional emerging power.

Even the draft Code of Conduct – which is cited as a success – while calling for regular drills by China and ASEAN in the South China Sea, insists that no regional outside must be involved “unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.” Beijing has also similarly been adamant that only Chinese and ASEAN companies carry out joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, and that the firms from countries outside the region be excluded. Not only will the US, but also Japan and India be affected by this.

Conclusion:

During the annual ministerial meet, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called the draft Code of Conduct as a “major achievement.” The Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Cayetano, on his part, expressed hope that a final document would be ready for a leaders’ summit in November. But that, needless to say, is being too optimistic.

That having said, China’s cooperation with ASEAN in maritime security is welcome. Such exercises are confidence-building measures facilitating communications and building trust amongst the key players. Yet, the ASEAN member states must recognize that the South China Sea is an international waterway that has great significance for many other countries – which must also have some say in the legal regime that emerges in the region.

i. http://news.abs-cbn.com/overseas/08/21/18/china-proposes-regular-military-exercises-with-asean-in-s-china-sea

ii. https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/whats-behind-the-new-china-asean-maritime-exercise/

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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