For ASEAN policymakers, China’s assertive claims to the South China Sea are their biggest headache as they attempt to counter and rebalance growing Chinese dominance over the region through naval military activities and its signature Belt and Road Initiative, writes Aristyo Rizka Darmawan of the University of Indonesia. While ASEAN welcomes great-power and partner support – the US Freedom of Navigation Program in the region and the presence of other navies in or near the disputed waters, member states are eager not to push Beijing too far.
En route to the tense Indo-Pacific: F35B fighter jet lands on the UK aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth during exercises in the Mediterranean (Credit: POPhot Jay Allen/UK Ministry of Defence)
On May 22, the British government sent one of its biggest and most powerful warships, the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific, in particular the South China Sea. The 65,000-ton warship is carrying about 30 aircraft, including 10 US Marine Corps F-35s and 250 US marines on top of its 1,700-strong crew in a sign of strength from the UK and its support for partners in the region.
The Queen Elizabeth is accompanied by a carrier strike group comprising two destroyers, two anti-submarine frigates, two logistics ships and a nuclear submarine. Also joining the aircraft carrier on its 28-week Pacific deployment are a US destroyer and a Dutch frigate. The British fleet represents the largest international deployment of Royal Navy warships since the Falklands War in 1982. This follows tours of six UK warships in the Indo-Pacific between January 2018 and October 2020. In 2023, Britain plans to despatch a Littoral Response Group, which would include an amphibious assault ship and a team of commandos.
These deployments are part of the Global Britain policy, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced earlier this year. The strategy is meant to underline the importance of the global presence – outside the European Union (EU) – of the United Kingdom, which is the current G7 chair. The naval missions also underscore the importance of the Asia Pacific, where the global economic center of gravity is located and where all key global strategic players including China have a presence.
In the last decade, the Pacific, including the area in and around the South China Sea, has become much more of a destination for deployments of various navies. Besides regular American missions under the US Freedom of Navigation (FON) Program, other countries such as Japan, Australia, Canada and India have sent ships to join military exercises in the Pacific, with some vessels skirting or even traversing the disputed zone and the waters of the Taiwan Strait. In early October last year, Japan sent three warships, including a helicopter carrier and a submarine, to the South China Sea for an anti-submarine exercise. And in mid-July last year, an Australian warship encountered a Chinese naval vessel near the disputed Spratly islands after conducting training with Japan and the US in the Philippine Sea.
The Global Britain policy, which signals a UK foreign policy shift to Asia, is not surprising. Many other countries have already announced that they are shifting attention toward the Indo-Pacific, as has become the geopolitically fashionable way to refer to the Asia Pacific. There was the US Pivot to Asia under the administration of Barack Obama, which morphed into an Indo-Pacific strategy. This now includes the upgrading of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, grouping Australia, India, Japan and the US in what members appear to hope evolves from its current focus on vaccine diplomacy, climate change, supply chains and infrastructure development into a robust Indo-Pacific regional security framework.
Even countries as far-flung from the region as France, Germany, the Netherlands have put forward Indo-Pacific strategies. The EU launched one in April, with officials hastening to qualify it as not anti-China. In the UK, the talk has been more about a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific though a full-fledged strategy may yet emerge. Canada, meanwhile, is reported to have been mulling an Indo-Pacific strategy for some time but has yet to release it. Notably, G7 host Johnson invited the leaders of Australia, South Korea and India to participate (the Indian PM joining virtually) in the summit in Cornwall, a clear indication that Indo-Pacific issues and China will be high on the agenda.
Japan was the first to articulate the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), while India has formulated its Look East Policy and South Korea its New Southern Policy. All of these constructions underline the importance of Asia – and arguably Southeast Asia, though the term “ASEAN centrality” does not often get more than a cursory nod – in the global geopolitical calculations of many countries who are in some ways rediscovering the region in light of China’s rise and more robust foreign policy – witness, the South China Sea.
These pivots to Asia have resulted in a more dynamic security landscape in the region. The Quad’s rapid elevation to greater prominence is a part of this. It had begun as a group to coordinate the humanitarian response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2004. After predecessor Donald Trump and his secretary of state Mike Pompeo built it up in the context of the US-China strategic competition, US President Joe Biden quickly took the initiative to host the quartet’s first summit, albeit virtual, in March. In their “Spirit of the Quad” joint statement, the leaders made their China motive very clear, committing to “collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas”.
Meanwhile, ASEAN has kept its frameworks for regional-security dialogue such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) and the inclusive ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) active even as attention has focused on the Quad, due to the promotion efforts of Washington, Tokyo and Canberra. (As for India, military border clashes with China have enhanced Delhi’s interest in the Quad.) The ADMM+, which marked its 10th anniversary last year and include the US and China as members (as they are of the ARF), has become an important ASEAN-led framework for security with major powers in the region. It provides an avenue to discuss important security matters, including the South China Sea, and a platform for maritime security cooperation.
This geopolitical shift to the region has given ASEAN a much busier agenda. Trapped in the middle of grand geopolitical rivalry and with tensions and risks building in the South China Sea, ASEAN has had to reassert its centrality in the region and underscore the importance of neutrality, though some member states have clearly tilted towards Beijing. With the strong support from Indonesia, ASEAN introduced its “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” to outline its perspective on navigating regional geopolitical challenges without fully embracing the FOIP construction favored by the US, Japan and Australia. But the document had little impact.
Indeed, whether ASEAN likes it or not, Southeast Asia and the South China Sea dispute – because it has become an arena for the major powers to face off – is attracting more and more international attention. Because it involves issues of maritime international law and China is involved, now even countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and Germany feel compelled to do more than take notice. After publishing Indo-Pacific guidelines in September 2020, Berlin is set to send the frigate Bayern to the region, though its headline motive is to enhance security cooperation with Australia, Japan and the US.
China’s unilateral claim through its self-declared Nine-Dash Line and its more assertive policy in the area have clearly raised the concerns of maritime nations which view the South China Sea as a globally strategic zone and wish to lend strategic and geopolitical support to the US and, laterally, the ASEAN claimants.
While some ASEAN members have conducted joint military exercises with global and regional powers, the question for the group as a whole is: Does ASEAN want the South China Sea disputes to be so internationalized? Of course, the core interest of all ASEAN states is to find a solution peacefully and to avoid more tension and escalation with any major power in the region. Yet, China has continued to threaten, provoke and bully other claimants, most recently with the mooring of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels at the Julian Felipe or Whitsun Reef near the Philippines.
But ASEAN’s quandary is how to beat back Beijing’s bullying? China’s military capacity is much beyond that of any other claimant state. And China, of course, has become a key if not sustaining source of growth through trade and investment for ASEAN economies. With the pandemic, China has become an important source of crucial medical supplies and now vaccines. To deal with Beijing, the Philippines took the route of using international law when it took its case against China’s claims to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and won. The Chinese have refused to recognize the arbitral action and the 2016 ruling.
In the same vein that the Biden has argued for a team effort of “like-minded” allies and partners to challenge China, the region would seem to need external powers – and not just the US – to help put pressure on Beijing to behave according to international norms. This is where the US FON Program in the region and the UK naval presence, as well as the attention of other states, could benefit.
Yet, there is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for aspect to the internationalization of the South China Sea. ASEAN states do not want to see too much military activity in the region because that could also provoke tension and escalation. Moreover, it could also make it less likely that China and the ASEAN claimant states would be able to resolve the conflict through negotiations.
In any case, ASEAN members are not all on the same page when it comes to US FON operations and other naval missions in the region. Some such as Singapore and Vietnam welcome a greater US presence in the area, while others such as Indonesia are less supportive. The assertion of freedom of navigation by Washington and others is aimed at confronting China and challenging territorial claims deemed illegal under international law. While this might offer a convenient geopolitical umbrella for ASEAN states, it might also make Beijing even more assertive.
Going forward, the South China Sea is likely only to attract more global care and attention. There are two possible scenarios. First, to counter the growing internationalization of the issue, Beijing might become more committed to expediting negotiations with ASEAN over the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). Talks had been suspended due to the pandemic but could resume soon, with 2022 the new target for concluding them. Second, the growing multinational presence in the Indo-Pacific including the South China Sea waters could provoke an escalation of the dispute and even trigger a naval skirmish or even war.
Darmawan, Aristyo Rizka. (January 28, 2021) “Obstacles to an Indo-Pacific Rules Based International Order”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
De Castro, Renato Cruz. (May 26, 2021) “Dazed and Confused: A Divided Duterte Administration Confronts and Appeases China”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Kuok, Lynn; and Huxley, Tim (eds). (June 8, 2021) Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment 2021, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, and Routledge, Abingdon, UK.
Aristyo Rizka Darmawan
Australian National University and University of Indonesia