South China Sea Dispute: ASEAN and the Economics of Influence (Third of Three Parts)

09.21.2016
Foreign Affairs Security Politics

Because ASEAN as a regional bloc has benefited enormously from its trading partnership with China, it has an interest in ensuring that it does not antagonize the rising superpower. At the same time, because many Southeast Asian countries are claimant states themselves, it also has an interest in supporting its member nations and standing up to China. Hence, it is unsurprising that ASEAN remains highly divided on this issue.

By Uriel N. Galace

This is the third and final installment in a three-part series analyzing the interests and strategies of the major countries involved in the South China Sea maritime dispute. Read part one: The Rise of China here.||Read part two: U.S. Interests and Duterte's Detente here.

ASEAN's Consensus Problem

Besides China and the Philippines, there are various other claimant states involved in the Spratlys dispute. In particular, these states are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Taiwan’s claims overlap with those of China, while the rest of the states all claim some part or another of the features in the Spratlys Island Group and/or the Paracel Island Group, which is another island chain in the South China Sea. Besides these six claimant states, the six other states in ASEAN, namely, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand, have also been dragged into the conflict by virtue of their membership in the regional bloc.

The Philippines and Vietnam are the two countries that are by far the most assertive in standing up to China. For this reason, they have been dubbed by many foreign policy analysts as the “hawks” in the dispute.1 Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand are considered the “fence-sitters” in that they are viewed as not taking sides in the conflict.2 On the other hand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos are considered the China “doves” because they are the countries seen as taking China’s side.3

Because ASEAN as a regional bloc has benefited enormously from its trading partnership with China, it has an interest in ensuring that it does not antagonize the rising superpower. At the same time, because many Southeast Asian countries are claimant states themselves, it also has an interest in supporting its member nations and standing up to China. Hence, it is unsurprising that ASEAN remains highly divided on this issue.

"ASEAN's emphasis on achieving a unified consensus, means that the bloc is seldom able to come up with a cohesive stance on the region's more complicated issues."

ASEAN is known for its “The ASEAN way” decision-making policy, whereby all member states must reach a consensus on what course of action to take before it can execute said action. This means that if a country like the Philippines were to try to push for ASEAN to release a statement publicly supporting the decision of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague—as indeed happened on July 2016 in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vientiane, Laos—all other member states must agree to that position before it can be executed. And if even just a single member opposes that action, then ASEAN will be unable to pursue it—which, again, is exactly what happened in Vientiane. Unfortunately, the ASEAN's emphasis on achieving a unified consensus, means that the bloc is seldom able to come up with a cohesive stance on the region's more complicated issues.

The best bet for smaller Southeast Asian claimant states to be able to enforce their territorial claims in the South China Sea is to set aside their differences and form a multilateral coalition in standing up to China. This is what the China “hawks”—the Philippines and Vietnam—have been calling for. However, precisely because ASEAN’s decision-making policy requires the consensus of all member states, then even the slightest division within its member ranks will be enough to prevent this. China has leveraged this fact excellently to its advantage.

For instance, China has dangled development aid and investment to ASEAN member states like Cambodia or Laos to ensure that these countries take its side in the dispute. By getting even just one or two ASEAN members to take its side, China will have done just enough to ensure that ASEAN does not form a united front to stand up against it. For this reason, ASEAN is widely viewed by analysts as weak in countering China.

Going forward, ASEAN will have to balance the scales in upholding its member states’ interests, while at the same time, not antagonizing China. If it cannot reach a consensus on what position to take with regard to this issue, it will be hard to envision it playing a significant role in resolving this dispute down the line.

Where do we go from here?

There are two competing perspectives from international relations theory that can be used to predict the outcome of this dispute.

The realist theory postulates that states are self-interested actors that compete for power and influence. Because we live in an anarchic world where there is no “global policeman” to maintain order, states are left constantly jostling for position in order to improve their standing in the hierarchy of the international system and maximize their power.4 Under this view, conflict between states competing over limited resources is inevitable, and it is only by going to war that the balance of power can be reset and order restored. Hence, under realism, war between the competing claimant states in the Spratlys dispute cannot be avoided.

"Warfare can no longer can be confined to the traditional sense of armed military conflict, but now encompasses other dimensions."

On the other hand, the liberal theory asserts that states’ desire for power can be overridden if they emphasize diplomacy and their shared economic interests. Under this view, if states are sufficiently economically integrated, and if they maintain strong diplomatic ties, then the prospect of war will diminish and peace will be more likely to reign.5 Thus, under liberalism, war can be avoided in the South China Sea if states continue to take advantage of diplomatic summits and international organizations to maintain peaceful relations with one another and communicate their mutual goals and interests.

However, with the advent of technology and globalization, the line between peace and war has become increasingly blurred. As mentioned previously, warfare can no longer can be confined to the traditional sense of armed military conflict, but now encompasses other dimensions, including economic, information, cyber, and cultural warfare.

At present, the United States (US) and China cannot engage in military warfare with one another because of the sheer extent to which each country is invested in the other. The costs, both in financial capital and in human lives, are simply too great to bear.

However, it is clear that these powers are in conflict—jockeying for influence over the Asia-Pacific region. The US and China have been engaged in economic warfare, as demonstrated by the US’ use of the TPP, cyber and information warfare, as shown by China’s cyber attacks on the US and its relentless propaganda campaign, and cultural warfare, as seen in both states’ use of soft power to win hearts and minds and their leveraging of international institutions to uphold their respective causes.

As China continues its rise and the balance of power begins to shift, this kind of nontraditional warfare will only intensify.

What happens after that, only time will tell.

This is the third and final installment in a three-part series analyzing the interests and strategies of the major countries involved in the South China Sea maritime dispute. Read part one: The Rise of China here.||Read part two: U.S. Interests and Duterte's Detente here.

FOOTNOTES

1

Heydarian, Richard Javad. Interview On The Spratlys Dispute. 2016. By Telephone.

2

Ibid.

4

Walt, Stephen M. "International Relations: One World, Many Theories". Foreign Policy 110 (1998): 29. Web.

5

Ibid.

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