Earlier this month, the 37th Asean Summit, the 17th India-Asean Summit and the 15th East Asia Summit held much significance for the evolving Indo-Pacific construct. The summits, held under the chairmanship of Vietnam, not only saw the expression of greater interest by Asean’s dialogue partners in the South China Sea region, but also buttressed Asean centrality in the regional scheme. Coming in the midst of a global pandemic, the summits also reiterated the need for international and regional cooperation to tackle the most pressing challenges of our time. As highlighted by Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in his opening remarks of the Asean summit, “Though three quarters of a century has passed since the end of the Second World War, world peace and security have not been truly sustainable. This year, peace and security are even under greater threat as a result of compounding risks arising from the unpredictable conduct of states, rivalries and frictions among major powers, various challenges to the international multilateral system, and the increasingly acute emergence of non-traditional security issues and extremist tendencies.”
The reason so much of geopolitical attention is being devoted to the South China Sea region is because of two factors. First, the South China Sea region ringed by the Asean nations is slated to emerge as the next global growth hub. This is borne out by the region’s improving governance structures, steady economic growth, an expansion in the working age population within Asean – expected to increase by 40 million by 2030 – fast diffusion of new-age technologies, China’s economic weight, and regional countries’ relatively better control of Covid-19 that is bound to facilitate faster economic rebound. Add to this the fact that the West – particularly the US – is losing its pre-eminent position in the world due to natural economic and demographic cycles, and it’s clear that the global balance of power is shifting from the West to the East.
Having established this, the second factor revolves around who will get to have the most influence over the East Asian architecture. China, which is emerging as a veritable economic and military giant, believes it should be the one to have the most influence, thereby fulfilling a two-century-long quest to reclaim the glory of the Middle Kingdom. However, as I have written before, there are also realpolitik Chinese considerations that dovetail into this larger ideal. The Chinese Communist Party is on a hypernationalist overdrive to reinforce its legitimacy as the sole arbitrator of power in China. And in being assertive in the South China Sea through its aggressive patrolling, island-building activities and harassment of legitimate commercial operations of neighbouring nations within their exclusive economic zones, the current Chinese leadership is trying to show an internal audience that it alone can safeguard and even enhance China’s interests. Add to this China’s long desire to create a zone of strategic depth in the Indo-Pacific to secure maritime, trade and energy routes, and drive wedges between the US and its regional allies.
But China’s strategic interests are contradicting with the desire to have a strong regional economy and growth hub underpinned by regional cooperation as reflected in the Asean community building process. China believes it can have its cake and eat it too, and that’s why it is pursuing economic and trade initiatives like the recently inked Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement on the one hand, while on the other hand it is trying to use its newfound military might to actualise its exaggerated maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea that were rejected by the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
In order for the South China Sea region to reach its full economic and development potential, it must have an open, constructive and free regional architecture. This is precisely why maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea is so important. In this regard, it is welcome that India during both the India-Asean Summit and the East Asia Summit threw its weight behind freedom of navigation and overflight, and adherence to international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In fact, at the East Asia Summit, India expressed concerns about actions and incidents that erode regional trust – code for Chinese belligerence – and for the first time clearly pitched for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that wasn’t prejudicial to the legitimate interests of third parties and fully consistent with UNCLOS.
This is a clear sign that international support for a free and open South China Sea under the free and open Indo-Pacific rubric is fast gaining currency. And the credit for this, at least in this round, must go to Vietnam’s chairmanship of Asean. Under Vietnam’s watch we have seen a stiffening of Asean’s resolve to stand up to China’s exaggerated claims as exemplified by the statement issued earlier this year where the 10-nation bloc clearly affirmed that UNCLOS should be the basis of sovereign rights and entitlements in the South China Sea. As Asean chairman, Vietnam also quickly adapted and responded to the Covid pandemic by hosting the Asean summit on Covid and the Special Asean Plus Three summit on Covid. And it is under Vietnam’s chairmanship that RCEP finally got inked, creating the world’s largest free trade agreement, and which hopefully will quicken the pace of economic recovery in the wake of Covid.
Therefore, Vietnam’s chairmanship of Asean has amply demonstrated what can be achieved if regional stakeholders work together in harmony by shelving disputes and differences. Hopefully, China will take note and effect a course correction.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.