An opportunity to restrain China’s actions in the South China Sea came and went with the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore earlier this month.
Both the US and China brushed through the issues but did not come to conclusive talks on how to resolve the SCS conflict.
This is a conflict that is weighing heavily on the Asean’s centrality and unity as well as the peace and stability of the region in the context of China’s increasing militarisation of the seas.
However, the US came out on top with renewed alliances between them and the South Koreans, Australians and Japanese. These Asian nations gave the US full support in its attempts to establish a rule for freedom of navigation in the region.
But then came the downing of a Philippines boat that made Manila turn to the United Nations to seek redress amid Chinese claims it did not intentionally cause the boat to sink.
The irony of the situation is this incident, however grievous, is a blessing in disguise for the Asean. The Philippines embassy in London was authorised by the Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin to make an “appeal” to the UN and its International Maritime Organization.
The IMO was told the Filipino boat’s crew “were callously abandoned” by the Chinese and would have “perished” but was rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.
Such incidents will occur in the hotly contested seas and it is only a matter of time that it may involve an oil tanker or cargo vessel. If that is the case, this will spark a rise in foreign intervention in the vicinity and the US may even beef-up its military presence in the seas to ‘protect’ a vital commercial route.
The region already have seen a rise in US military presence. On May 6, two US destroyers sailed within 12 nautical miles from Gavern Reef and the Johnson Reef of the Spratly islands.
As usual, China issued warnings. But the US says it is challenging China’s excessive maritime claims in preserving the waterways as governed by International laws.
There was also the February incident where the USS Spruance and USS Preble entered the Second Thomas Shoal of the Spratly Islands and the the Mischief Reef.
The Asean could bring both parties to halt their activities in the South China Sea and get the US and China to abide by a Code of Conduct which is coming to fruition if Beijing is willing to continue talks that would lead to the finalisation of the COC’s terms and conditions.
The US also could be brought to accept such terms and conditions as a means to reduce the incident of a sudden armed conflict raging on the sea borders of several Asean member states.
On the other hand, it is imperative for the Asean head of states to get China on board on the need to protect the sea routes and the dangerously shattered environment in the SCS.
The SCS is a vital source of living for the fishermen of various countries in the region, starting with the Vietnamese and the Philippines as well as the Cambodians in particular.
Millions of people depends on the resources from the sea for survival and China is conquering this vital sea lanes where fishing is a plenty for the people living in the coastal areas.
In May, China imposed a unilateral ban on fishing in the SCS. Hanoi expressed opposition against the ban, but Manila is silent.
The Chinese government started its annual fishing ban in the South China Sea, which includes waters that are in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, on May 1.
The ban may last 100 days but makes it difficult for the folks in the coastal regions to earn a living as they depend heavily on fishing in the high seas.
Vietnam condemned the South China Sea fishing ban as it violates Hanoi’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands.
A Washington-based think tank, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), altogether released satellite imagery showing China’s most destructive boats returning to the turbulent SCS.
Meanwhile, the Asean as a grouping is facing internal division as the member countries are still pushing for their own individual foreign policies.
Nevertheless, in May the Philippines president said he was sad and bewildered that efforts to hammer out the COC to govern the disputed waters is still incomplete and is dragging on.
The SCS and foreign power influence in the region are two main issues that has shaken the Asean and handling them will need unity among the grouping.
The future of the Asean as a unified group is vital for peace and security among the member states and in the SCS, hence the member countries has to come up with a plan that will cement the relationship within the Asean.
This will send strong signals to the rest of the world that the people in the region does not want foreign meddling and Chinese domination in the SCS
The question is whether China and the US can be brought to accept a regionally backed code of conduct that may make this region more peaceful and what is the Asean’s role in pushing for such a resolution of the impending conflict?