South China Sea | Vol. VI, Issue 5

     South China Sea, Greater Natuna Island, SCS

    The Greater Natuna Island, South China Sea

    THE ISSUE: ASEAN Summit and the future of Maritime Politics

    Regional leaders came together from April 26-28 for the 30th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian nations in Manila, the Philippines. This year’s summit marked the 50th year of existence for the regional organization. Among other issues pertaining to the region, the most prominent at the summit was maritime cooperation. In the run up to the summit, there was renewed debate regarding a maritime code of conduct for the South China Sea. While maritime tensions have been persistent in the region for quite some years now, there have also been recent developments which have kept the region in a state of flux. These include an escalation of tensions in the Korean peninsula to an alternating state of warm and cold relations between China and the Philippines, and increasing tensions between the US and China.

    Leaders of countries in the region have repeatedly called for peace, stability, dialogue and adherence to maritime laws. Nevertheless, there has been a steady pace of assertion over the South China Sea maintained by Beijing. From refusing to acknowledge the verdict passed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding competing maritime sovereignty claims between Manila and Beijing in 2016, to the increasing number of constructions on the islands and reefs of the waters to land reclamation activities, Beijing has remained consistent in its insistence that it was doing all these in keeping within its own sovereign purview.

    However, the Chairman’s statement at the end of the summit did not really focus much of the issue of maritime cooperation besides touching upon the fact that dialogue is an important mechanism for safety and security. On concerns regarding the South China Sea, the statement “reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force.” The statement of the Chairman lacked a proper directive regarding maritime concerns and glossed over the issues. While dialogue and the acknowledgement of building trust and exercising self-restraint are important in themselves, without tangible measures that seek to promote and uphold them, these are practically toothless.

    In the wake of these apprehensions it is very interesting to note the lack of much needed discussion on maritime law and security and the mellow final statement at the summit. Media reports state that none of the ASEAN leaders brought up the subject during the summit. Given that tensions between Beijing and Manila have been cooling under President Duterte’s regime, it is also important to note that there was also no mention during the summit of the 2016 verdict which was in favour of the Philippines. It is probably too early to determine the course of maritime politics in Southeast Asia but the fact that there is a shift from rebuffing Beijing for its actions to one where the littoral countries of the region are possibly looking to underplay tensions is becoming visible.

     MEDIA WATCH

    Trump invites Duterte to Washington in ‘friendly’ phone call

    US President Donald Trump has invited his Philippine counterpart to Washington in a “friendly” call in which the leaders discussed Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and their countries’ alliance, the White House said. Duterte has faced international condemnation for his brutal crackdown on crime, which has claimed thousands of lives and led to warnings from rights groups about a possible crime against humanity. (South China Morning Post)

    Thailand: Turn South China Sea into sea of peace

    On the eve of the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, Thailand yesterday reiterated its support for the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.“We would like to see the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and sustainable development for the interest of all,” Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said in an interview with Filipino journalists.While Thailand is a non-claimant in the South China Sea, Chan-o-cha stressed the need to finalize a framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. (Philstar)

    Widodo’s peace formula for South China Sea

    States involved in the South China Sea dispute should engage in “concrete cooperation” well before any code of conduct is developed, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has proposed. In an exclusive interview ahead of his visit to the ASEAN summit, Widodo said that such cooperation would be an important step towards ensuring peace in the disputed waters.Widodo’s comments indicate that Southeast Asia’s largest nation has no intention of becoming more confrontational over this potentially explosive issue. (South China Morning Post)

    ASEAN urged to enhance connectivity, global role

    The 30th Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) opened in Manila, Philippines on Saturday (April 29) with leaders of 10 ASEAN member nations looking to strengthen connectivity and promote the bloc as a global player. In his opening remarks, President Rodrigo Duterte highlighted the significance of this year – a milestone year for ASEAN as the bloc marks its 50th anniversary of establishment. Duterte underlined the core priorities of the Philippines’ chairmanship, which are building a people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN, maintaining a peaceful and stable region, cooperating in maritime security and advancing inclusive and innovative-led growth, promoting ASEAN’s resiliency, and promoting ASEAN as a model for regionalism and as a global player. (Manila Bulletin)

    China revises mapping law to bolster claims over South China Sea land, Taiwan

    China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, a top law-making body, passed a revised version of China’s surveying and mapping law intended to safeguard the security of China’s geographic information, lawmakers told reporters in Beijing.Hefty new penalties were attached to “intimidate” foreigners who carry out surveying work without permission.President Xi Jinping has overseen a raft of new legislature in the name of safeguarding China’s national security by upgrading and adding to already broad laws governing state secrets and security. (The Japan Times)

    US accuses China of altering landscape in South China Sea

    China has fundamentally altered the physical and political landscape in the strategic South China Sea through militarisation and large-scale land reclamation, a top American admiral has claimed. Chinese military modernisation is focused on defeating the US in Asia by countering US asymmetric advantages, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of US Pacific Command told lawmakers during a Congressional hearing. (The Economic Times)

    China launches first home-built aircraft carrier amid South China Sea tension

    China launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier on Wednesday amid rising tension over North Korea and worries about Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.State media has quoted military experts as saying the carrier, China’s second and built in the northeastern port of Dalian, is not expected to enter service until 2020, once it has been kitted out and armed.Foreign military analysts and Chinese media have for months published satellite images, photographs and news stories about the second carrier’s development. China confirmed its existence in late 2015. (Reuters)

    China begins deep-sea mission in disputed South China Sea

    Chinese scientists embarked on a deep-sea mission in the resource-rich South China Sea on Tuesday notwithstanding a simmering maritime dispute with many countries in the region.China’s manned submersible ‘Jiaolong’ with her crew of scientists arrived in the location aboard the mother ship Xiangyanghong 09 on Tuesday, the beginning of the second stage of China’s 38th oceanic expedition.The submersible is expected to conduct its first South China Sea dive this year on Wednesday if the weather conditions allow. (Hindustan Times)

    Philippines Sends Defense Chief to Disputed South China Sea Island

    The Philippines sent its top military officials on Friday to an island it occupies in the disputed South China Sea to reinforce the country’s claim.Even before the military C-130 transport aircraft reached Pag-asa Island, also known as Thitu, the Chinese challenged the flight at least four times on radio as it passed through the region. China claims the island, as do Vietnam and Taiwan.Defense Secretary DelfinLorenzana, who led the trip, sought to play down the challenge from the Chinese, saying it was their “protocol” to question aircraft flying over what they regarded as their airspace. (The New York Times)

    Duterte Softens Tone on U.S. Before South China Sea Talks

    The Philippines appears to be softening its tone toward the U.S. before holding talks with Beijing on the South China Sea.President Rodrigo Duterte let the insults fly last year, telling former leader Barack Obama to “go to hell” for opposing his drugs war and announcing a “separation from the U.S.” during a trip to Beijing. He also sought to buy more military equipment from Russia.Now Duterte’s government wants the U.S. to actively promote security and cooperation in the South China Sea, according to acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo. He downplayed any friction between the longstanding military allies. (Bloomberg)

    RECENT PUBLICATIONS

     COMMENTARIES

    K.V. Kesavan, “The thriving Australia–India partnership”, East Asia Forum, April 29, 2017

    Prashanth Parameswaran, “Confronting Indonesia’s Maritime Coordination Challenge”, The Diplomat, April 27, 2017

    Yizhe (Daniel) Xie, “The world needs RCEP”, East Asia Forum, April 25, 2017

    Philipp Martin Dingeldey, “Singapore’s Port Hub Plan: Smooth Sailing Ahead?”, RSIS, April 25, 2017

    Hugh White, “Australia’s Chinese reality”, East Asia Forum, April 24, 2017

    Mark J. Valencia, “Do US Actions in the South China Sea Violate International Law?”, The Diplomat, April 24, 2017

    Dindo Manhit, “Challenges ahead on the South China Sea”, Philstar, April 21, 2017

    Matthew Busch, “Indonesia and Freeport: problem solved?”, East Asia Forum, April 15, 2017

    Xiaoming Huang, “China takes One Belt One Road down under”, East Asia Forum, April 7, 2017

    Editor: K. Yhome                                               Associate Editor: Pratnashree Basu

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