The Case of the South China Sea and the Haze Crisis
Before the late 1980s and early 1990s, the South China Sea disputes were marked both by unilateralism as well as Chinese demands that any negotiation should occur on a bilateral basis. However, after the great transformation with the Tiananmen Square incident and the fall of the Soviet empire, China consented to multilateral talks. And within few years it joined the Indonesia Workshops on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea, the ASEAN-China Dialogue, and the ARF. In short, China’s acquiescence to a multilateral framework ensured that the dispute would be negotiated on a regional platform with all claimants.
With the energy consumption by Asian countries expected to increase to nearly 29.8 million barrels per day by 2025; joint development could provide a remarkable window of opportunity for ASEAN.
There were several reasons for China to move from unilateralism and bilateralism to multilateralism. For example, there were changes taking place both in China as well as the outside world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For example, Tiananmen Square incident was a public relations disaster for China, and she was forced to curb its military actions both at home and abroad. Besides, the fall of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War led to an end to the China-USA-USSR relations and forced China to redefine its relationships (Emmers 2001).
Against a backdrop of rising tensions in the SCS, further workshops on the South China Seawas held in in 2010, 2012, 2014 (International Workshops on the South China Sea).There were significant concerns about the growing presence of naval powers in the SCS in the name of safeguarding strategic interests and counterbalancing the presence of one another. Additionally, the participants had always focused on the role and probable intentions of China as well as the effectiveness of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties agreed between ASEAN and China to resolve disputes in the SCS through diplomatic means (International Workshops on the South China Sea).
With the energy consumption by Asian countries expected to increase to nearly 29.8 million barrels per day by 2025; joint development could provide a remarkable window of opportunity for ASEAN. There are potential spinoffs as well. The joint oceanographic marine scientific expedition in the South China Sea is an example, where the parties have pledged to cooperate in marine scientific research and environmental protection (Bensurto 2011 and 2012).Some ASEAN members, especially the Philippines, have actively tried to engage the U.S. and Japan and even the United Nations as mediators, but China has consistently refused. ASEAN itself is divided over whether to engage external actors in the conflict resolution process, since this would also inevitably highlight the intra-ASEAN disputes.
Since for the last 23 years, a part of Southeast Asia has been under a thick haze, and ASEAN has not been able to get rid of this man-made health and environmental problem.
The resistance against involving both external states and organizations, such as United Nations (UN) and Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), is far greater than the will to engage them. For its part, China has consistently insisted that SCS disputes must be negotiated through bilateral channels. China has always insisted in following “a three no’s strategy” that gives China the upper hand in negotiation (Valencia 2010). This includes no internationalization of the conflict, no multilateral negotiations, and no specification of China’s territorial demands.
Since for the last 23 years, a part of Southeast Asia has been under a thick haze, and ASEAN has not been able to get rid of this man-made health and environmental problem. In fact, there is no central ASEAN administration to enforce such stringent measures to control haze. The haze in Southeast Asia is expected to get even stronger. In fact, “the total economic losses in terms of agriculture production, destruction of forest lands, health, transportation, tourism, and other economic endeavors have been estimated of US$9.3 billion” (Nadaraj 2014).A major blow came again in 2013 when the haze started spreading further affecting southern Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei. It was even worse for Singapore.
ASEAN usually refrains from using the hard-line approach in dealing with issues in the Asian platform. Neither does ASEAN prefers to impose sanctions or punitive measures due to its adherence to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of one another. Hence, the haze crisis is not an exception. Although such issues in Southeast Asia is forcing ASEAN to change its ways to increase its political will, however it’s hard for the organization to avoid such criticisms. In fact, the implementation, compliance, and enforcement of laws and principals should also come from the member countries. Besides, ASEAN has to learn how to handle such sensitive situations where there is room for poor compliance and weak implementation (Nadaraj 2014).
…Southeast Asia minus ASEAN would probably mean even greater political instability, more disunity, and widespread economic deterioration…
Is it All Bark and No bite?
Thus far, continuing talks have at least staved off direct violent confrontations. All the foregoing discussion of peaceful settlement initiatives has shown the importance of ASEAN in mitigating disputes in Southeast Asia. At the same time, ASEAN has been criticized to be simply providing a benign background of stated principles that might have the effect of dampening the potentials for conflict. As noted, China resists multilateralism of existing disputes and ASEAN has its own internal divisions that constrain its members’ capacity to act collectively. However, Southeast Asia minus ASEAN would probably mean even greater political instability, more disunity, and widespread economic deterioration (ASEAN website). That is about the best one can say for the organization. It proclaims some worthwhile principles and continues to “be there” should parties to disputes wish to make use of its services.
Both the East Asian summits in July and November 2012 ended in dismay as Cambodia, the chair of ASEAN and an important Chinese ally, declared that the SCS disputes would not be raised in international forums. Recently, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India are all objecting to Beijing’s move to establish its territorial claims by illustrating them in passports. The ICJ has even ruled in favor of Philippines recently, and this incident has estranged Beijing even further. Taiwan has also actively joined the competition by deciding to explore for undersea oil in the SCS region.
At the same time, ASEAN was becoming a more powerful voice in regional affairs, and providing an able security mechanism to prevent wars between its members. It has also provided a forum of cooperation in which Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines were able to develop a more unified approach towards China, Vietnam, and Taiwan in the South China Sea. Further, economic interdependence between the rapidly industrializing countries has created an atmosphere of increasing economic cooperation and interdependence in Southeast Asia. Unilateral actions such as taking the Paracel Islands by force had come to an end due to continued military expansionism in the South China Sea by several claimants. All these developments wouldn’t have been possible without the presence of ASEAN.
Economically ASEAN is moving forward with greater economic integration, building a common regional identity, ensuring peace and security.
Despite potential challenges, there is hope that China and ASEAN will resolve their differences over the South China Sea disputes, and that ASEAN would succeed in controlling the environmental crisis in Southeast Asia. In fact some of the multilateral proposals such as the 2014 cooperation proposals from ASEAN states for the cooperation fund projects; or the 2015 “ASEAN-China Year of Maritime Cooperation” etc. would not only create favorable conditions for better maritime cooperation but would also shape a new pattern of diplomatic relations with neighboring countries.
Well, ASEAN has survived for the past four decades better than its predecessors like the SEATO, the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) and the Maphilindo. In fact amidst severe challenges, Southeast Asia now constitutes one of the most peaceful and prosperous regions in the world. ASEAN countries had also shown excellent economic performance overtime. Intra-ASEAN trade has grown and the ASEAN countries had proved to be among the world’s most dynamic economies. Economically ASEAN is moving forward with greater economic integration, building a common regional identity, ensuring peace and security (ASEAN website).
ASEAN’s political achievement has been cited more spiritedly than its considerable role in the economic development of its members. As the Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo L. Siazon Jr commented: “…………During the last 30 years, ASEAN has been able to maintain peace and stability among its Member Countries despite the many territorial problems and other issues among them. ASEAN today is the only sub regional organization in Asia that provides a political forum where Asian countries and the world Powers can discuss and consider problems related to security, political issues and military concerns” (ASEAN website).
ASEAN needs to reinvent itself and gain strategic and political prominence in order to deal with future challenges.
However, ASEAN needs to reinvent itself and gain strategic and political prominence in order to deal with future challenges.The situation looks extremely complicated since, on the one hand, ASEAN might offend China by its involvement, on the other, if this situation continues, then general peace and prosperity will be at stake. Besides, if ASEAN unconditionally supports its members, then one or more of them might draw the organization even further into the conflict.
Although ASEAN’s integration continues to be problematic and its ability to speak in a unified fashion about politico-security matters remains uncertain, a strong ASEAN still appears to be desired by most of the SCS and the Haze claimants. ASEAN will continue to act as the driving force in shaping regional architecture in the Asia Pacific region. Since its development, ASEAN has been pragmatic in developing cooperation among its members in undertaking various projects. It’s true that since its inception, ASEAN has faced severe problems in dealing with the environment, piracy, border security issues, handling maritime disputes etc., however, ASEAN still exists. And ASEAN will continue to face the future with hope and confidence.
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