The longer a problem persists the harder it is to resolve. This is exactly what is happening with the decades-old South China Sea dispute, a major geopolitical focus area in the contemporary world. And the ASEAN bloc is partly responsible for this.
According to South China Morning Post, the “intramural differences” among the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member countries weaken their negotiations with China. The distinct feature of the South China Sea dispute is the multiplicity of actors and their conflicting interests over the control of islands and ocean areas between two or more states.
While China claims the largest area in accordance with its rather infamous nine-dash line, Southeast Asian nations such as Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have their own disputes regarding the resource-rich sea and the control of islands.
The Philippines and Vietnam have territorial disputes with China over the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands. The Philippines has claimed the western portion of the Spratly Islands since 1970, whereas Vietnam is only second to China in its sweeping claim over the parts of the two islands in the South China Sea.
Brunei, on the other hand, asserts its rights over the islands lying within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
While Taiwan and Brunei are constantly hounded by China, Indonesia whose claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) overlaps with that of Chiana’s has also positioned itself against Beijing. The issue is further complicated by the fact that China, being the dominant party, creates important stakes for the United States to maintain the balance of power in the region.
For instance, Washington has thrown its weight behind Taiwan as Bejing continues to intimidate the island militarily.
The ASEAN member countries are currently discussing the “Code of Conduct” with China in the disputed sea. Although they have formed various agreements jointly, these agreements are mostly made on compromise due to internal conflict of interests.
The biggest dilemma for the ASEAN members lies in the fact that they have to trade their “sovereignty” to the decision-making system of ASEAN as an international organization.
The economic, political, social, historical, and the difference in synergy with Beijing is the reason for their reluctance towards a unified approach in negotiating with China.
After conducting simultaneous military exercises & maneuvers around #Taiwan, #China's suspected aircraft carrier Liaoning & its escorts are observed entering the #SouthChinaSea on Saturday, 10 April 2021 pic.twitter.com/IjWdnY5sFW
— d-atis☠️ (@detresfa_) April 10, 2021
Their trade relationship and economic dependence on Chinese markets and goods also hinder them from taking a tough stance against the country. Although Washington favors defense cooperation with ASEAN members to strengthen their position, it resists taking the lead to oppose Beijing.
Beijing knows the internal crisis among the ASEAN members and thus, prefers bilateral talks rather than multilateral discussions. Bilateral talks give Beijing an edge due to its economic, political, military strength over any other individual country in the bloc which ensures an almost winning place to China.
It suspects that the presence of the United States in the region will be a hindrance in achieving hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, it is wary of the involvement of the United States in the South China Sea dispute and its support to other claimants.
The South China Sea and the islands in the region have an abundance of natural resources and hydrocarbon reserves other than being an important sea line for fisheries, trade, oil, transportation adding to its supreme strategic importance.
The unsettled disputes among the ASEAN members have led to China’s ever-increasing aggressive militarization of the South China Sea and bullying the smaller Southeast Asian countries, analysts argue.
One solution could be that the member countries need to scale down their “sovereignty” claims to strengthen the decision-making power of the ASEAN bloc to counter Beijing’s claims. However, the question remains if they are prepared to put aside their internal squabbles in the larger interest of ensuring peace and tranquility in the troubled waters of the South China Sea.