The commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the ASEAN-China strategic partnership this year will be met by greater skepticism than at its launching in 2003. Recent developments in the East Asian region point to still huge mistrust between the two sides, particularly between China and the ASEAN states that are embroiled in territorial and maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea. Of late, security tensions have been compounded by escalating geopolitical rivalry between China and the region’s other big powers -- the United States and Japan, both also vital partners of ASEAN.
That said, healthy skepticism underscores the challenges but does not belittle the importance of this relationship between East Asia’s now preeminent economic and rising military power on the one hand, and its most successful regionalist collective and key catalyst of multilateral dialogue and cooperation on the other hand. It may be argued that ASEAN-China cooperation is bound to have even greater impact in the near future, not only on their current shared bilateral interests such as free trade, economic cooperation and infrastructure connectivity, but also on matters beyond their own geographic reach. Much, however, depends on each side’s vision of its own regional role.
There are certainly reasons why ASEAN would want to push for greater strategic unity and influence. First of all, as ASEAN moves slowly but surely toward the vaunted ASEAN Economic Community and even the political-security and sociocultural areas of community building, it will need more than ever a peaceful and orderly regional environment. This requires mitigating intra-ASEAN conflicts as well as any major security problem involving ASEAN member states and external players. Fortunately, intra-ASEAN tensions remain manageable, and since embarking on political reform, the Myanmar situation is no longer the obstacle to cooperative relations with the West that it once was. However, ASEAN is now witness to resurgent big power competition that once more (as it did during the Cold War) risks polarizing the member states as well as infringing on its collective autonomy. Preventing such an outcome requires an ASEAN proactive and possibly preemptive strategy, and a unity of perspective that simply is lacking at the moment.
China, for its part, needs its immediate neighbors’ recognition of its new status and future power aspirations, or at the very least will seek to neutralize ASEAN support for other powers who may be perceived by China as seeking to curtail its influence. At a time when its defense concerns with Japan, the United States and even India are growing, China cannot afford (politically) to antagonize all of its neighbors, let alone fight even limited wars simultaneously on several fronts. The territorial and maritime disputes that embroil China with specific ASEAN states (Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia) but which have vital economic and security implications for the ASEAN region and beyond, serve as the test of China’s readiness to look beyond its own national sovereignty into the legitimate interests of its smaller neighbors as well as issues affecting the public good such as freedom of navigation. Its assertive actions in the last few years have unfortunately led to reduced confidence and effectively set back decades of erstwhile successful diplomacy with ASEAN. Whether and how China can successfully pursue a more assertive stance on territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea while at the same time extending assurances to its neighbors of its benign intentions is anyone’s guess. In the midst of this kind of uncertainty, an effective and binding ASEAN-China code of conduct can have a constructive role to play.
China appears to want to promote maritime cooperation with ASEAN as one of the centerpieces of the strategic partnership. In Beijing’s view, rather than resolving territorial issues, cooperation may be pursued initially by picking low lying fruit – e.g. working together on shared concerns such as marine environment, navigation safety, search and rescue, transnational crime. Beijing has established a $3 billion fund for this purpose. Because the shared ocean space between China and ASEAN is no less than the disputed South China Sea (enclosed in the Chinese national mindset as the 9-dashed line), such maritime cooperation may be viewed in a number of ways, including as a Chinese gambit to expand its influence over the yet evolving rules governing activities at sea, or – arguably from rose-tinted glasses - as a window of opportunity to develop cooperative regimes that may gradually erode the 9 dashed-line mindset, metaphorically speaking.
ASEAN, the Philippines, Vietnam, the US, Japan, India or any other country cannot deny that China has legitimate maritime security interests in Southeast Asia and beyond. It is always only a matter of time before new powers step up to claim more influence. A China that is actively involved in cooperative maritime regimes operating based on internationally accepted norms and principles should be a welcome development to all coastal states.
At the same time, however, China in turn has to learn to accept that it is not the only big power in the region nor will it be in the foreseeable future. And that there are rules and laws in place such as UNCLOS precisely intended to check abuse in the exercise of power by anyone and against anyone. Moreover, small and medium powers, no longer consenting to be pushed around by big ones, will seek recourse to somehow push back. The Philippines, by seeking a ruling by an arbitral panel under UNCLOS on the legality of the 9-dashed line and other Chinese actions on Philippine EEZ, has tried to open an alternative arena for dispute settlement based on accepted norms. However, Manila must be realistic enough to see international law as a subset of international politics, and to consider the perspective that legal decisions may work best if they operate as complementary to, rather than as a subtitute for, efforts to arrive at win-win political-diplomatic solutions.