If Australia wants to avoid regional turmoil caused by China’s sea claims, it needs to turn to Asean

Senkaku Islands

Senkaku Islands

Sitting as far from its European roots as possible, perched on the southeast tip of Southeast Asia, Australia has for so long searched for security from our region. Now it needs to, and is, seeking security in the region.

Traditional security threats, like territorial disputes in the South China Sea, are disrupting the Asia-Pacific. What seems like a squabble over a few rocks, could see the region in a very hard place. The key to maintaining security is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean. It’s our great hope, and needs to look within itself to ensure the region’s security.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea not only directly affect many of Asean’s member countries – Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines – but have taken on a much deeper complexion with the rising power of China.

Beijing’s territorial claim on the South China Sea, the “nine-dash line”, has been used to carve out a stake in a sea rich in resources. It also has the potential to touch Indonesian interests, and in turn, affect Australia.

The disputes over the South China Sea are not new, but the dynamics have changed significantly as China has become more powerful and more assertive and as the Philippines and Vietnam (with US and Japanese encouragement) in particular have sought to push back.

China, in its dispute with Vietnam, has cleverly resorted to the use of white and red painted vessels, using water cannons to intimidate and deter, and ramming and even sinking fishing vessels as a way to assert their power and authority – yet without triggering an armed, war-like response. This is a shrewd technique intended to avoid a concerted and coordinated response from the affected Asean countries, let alone the United States.

Yet the implications of sitting back and watching while this transpires need to be thought through. Do the countries of Asean really want their forum to be effectively marginalised when it comes to security matters? Does Asean really want to comply with the proposal for bilateral resolution of disputes only? Have the ramifications of this approach been taken into account?

Pundits in Australia certainly see the merits in Asean speaking with one voice and Australia has acted consistently to bolster its ability and resolve to act cohesively and coherently. The United States and the Philippines have re-invigorated their mutual security alliance and Japan has offered tangible assistance to the Philippines, Vietnam and others in the region to counter the growing pressure.

There are limits to what Japan and the United States, or Australia for that matter, can do when it comes to the direct concerns of the Asean states – and China knows this well, consistently acting below the threshold that would trigger or warrant external intervention on the side of one of the Asean claimant states.

A key reason for this reluctance for countries like the United States to get directly involved is that the South China sea claims remain contested – they are yet to be settled before international courts of arbitration. China’s insistence on bilateral rather than multilateral dispute resolution has also had the effect of sidelining Asean.

The question remains: do the countries of Asean care enough about Asean solidarity – especially the non-claimant states that do not perceive they have a stake in the South China sea disputes?

For a resolution to be reached that suits the interests of Asean, non-claimant states need to be prepared to lend support to their claimant counterparts. That would entail collaborating on finding a way to resolve the disputes between each other, and then presenting a united front in discussions with external players like China.

This is not to say that China does not have a legitimate claim, or that China should be locked out, which is not going to happen in any case. But China, I would argue, is more likely to be accommodating of compromise arrangements with Asean countries if the association unites in proposing a resolution to the intensifying disputes.

For its part, Australia has a vested interest in seeing Asean emerge as a more capable and robust institution that can work effectively and collaboratively in the interests of the whole.

The stakes are clear. Australia is an island nation dependent on sea-based trade for its prosperity. Australia’s maritime trade routes are its lifeblood and an enormous proportion of this trade transits into and through the South China Sea. Australia has a stake in the peaceful resolution of disputes in this region.

For Australia, the term “Indo-Pacific” has come into use in recent times, in part because we recognise the increased significance of India and the Indian Ocean to Australian and regional security and prosperity. After all, the vast majority of trade transits this region, along the maritime Silk Road connecting Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas. The term also encompasses the growing significance for all states in the region of China and India both rising peacefully.

A significant part of this re-conception of the region as the Indo-Pacific is the centrality of Southeast Asia. It already is the choke point for much east-west and north-south trade. Southeast Asia is seen by Australia as the heart of the Indo-Pacific region – sitting at the crossroads between East Asia and South Asia and immediately to Australia’s north.

Australia has an enduring vested interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes and effective building of trade and economic links to tie the region more closely together as an integrated regional economically, wherein Australia plays a contributing role alongside the nations of Asean and other regional powers in bolstering security and stability.

The time to choose has come. Asean needs to back itself and its members, and Australia needs to back Asean. It’s the difference between sinking or swimming in today’s murky waters.

Source; The Guardian – If Australia wants to avoid regional turmoil, it needs to turn to Asean

Categories: Politics & Law

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7 replies

  1. . ASEAN is too easily manipulated by Chinese political intervention, because of its long obsolete institutional “ASEAN way”: more than 1/2 of ASEAN members are either smaller, poorer than some Chinese cities and have Chinese originated citizens with significant economic influence over domestic affairs. Most ASEAN members will continue to swing from neutral to who’s stronger, momentarily.
    . Like most nations, Australia may benefit from peaceful resolution but as stated by FM Bishop ” China respects strength”, thus unless opposition strength is clearly demonstrated to China – no possibility of fair and lawful agreement is feasible!
    . Australia must step up to joint Japan, India, the Philippines and Vietnam to form a mutual defense pack before China controls South China Sea and economically ties up more small neighbors. Such strong signal of engagement will politically remove the fence from some South East Asians such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore and force them to commit to 1 side or the other.



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  6. Chinese admiral says South China Sea belongs to China – because it has ‘China’ in its name | China Daily Mail

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