By: Mark Payumo

The security challenges facing the Southeast Asian region increasingly call into question the relevance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose inability to assert international law stems from its blind hope that Beijing will hold up to its promises, which has been a failed hope indeed given China’s actions in ignoring all the littoral countries surrounding the South China Sea.

“China maintained a delaying strategy while actively seeking to manage the diplomatic costs of its assertiveness,” according to Taylor Fravel’s authoritative study, China Strategy in the South China Sea. “In 1995, China and the Philippines signed a code of conduct. In 2002, China and ASEAN signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”

Beijing, however, simply violated them altogether, Fravel writes. But ASEAN is willing to try again this year to agree with China on a draft framework for another South China Sea code of conduct.

A Divided ASEAN

This may well be doomed right from the beginning. In 2016, despite having a prepared draft, ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement affirming The Hague ruling in favor of the Philippines against China’s encroachment on its maritime territory. That revealed the internal division that exists within the grouping when it comes to the South China Sea issue.

Moreover, the division itself is ASEAN’s brand of inefficacy when tackling an unreliable great power and in sticking to its own charter when it comes to upholding international law. The Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, has dismayed most of his country’s allies and many of his own officials by procrastinating with China on The Hague ruling almost immediately after he became the country’s chief executive.

As A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi noted in a 2016 forum with Philippine foreign policy experts, it is the fourth time since 2012 that ASEAN has been divided over the South China Sea issue. He cited Singapore’s departure the day before the court’s ruling, declaring that it was “a national decision undertaken by the Philippines without consultation with the rest of us.”  Cambodia did the same thing within a week of the ruling as it declared that it “will not join in expressing any common position on the verdict.”

It is therefore understandably frustrating for the international community that not even a new maritime organization could solve the South China Sea conundrum, in which China is inevitably turning the entire ocean into its own lake, building islands from which it can dominate the sea lanes as it goes.  

Prashanth Parameswaran writes that a proposal by Ken Sato, president of the Institute for International Policy Studies, to establish a new grouping to more effectively manage the maritime disputes would merely “contribute to the alphabet soup of regional organizations already in existence in the Asia-Pacific” and may well be nothing more than a redundant duplication.

Sato’s recommendation, however, is reminiscent of Philippine foreign policy experts’ call for an ASEAN coalition back in 2016, following Manila’s victory from The Hague ruling. The Philippines rightly sees ASEAN’s way of dealing with the issue as nothing more than a set of fragmented unilateral responses that are severely incapable of putting Beijing in diplomatic check. And it’s all because it has the front row seat as it deals helplessly with Beijing’s land reclamations while Duterte’s hedging policy appears increasingly favorable to China’s claims.

Manila now appears set to lose the Scarborough Shoal if it sticks with ASEAN’s current collective course of action; hence, the agenda for a coalition response that promises to prevent cheating and exact accountability in the process.

If There’s A Will, There’s A Way

However, the fact that there is now an insistence brewing to the surface to put teeth on existing multilateral fora and arrangements is ASEAN’s increasing validation of Parameswaran’s argument that, “time and tide wait for no nation-state.” The world will have to act, otherwise it is only a question of when China will succeed in upending regional order on its own terms through its delaying strategy.

The urgency of the situation doesn’t call for collective defense given the absence of any actual armed confrontation. But it certainly warrants a collective security arrangement (CSA) that matches appropriately China’s delaying strategy and its militarization of the South China Sea. This arrangement will complement the ASEAN Regional Forum and may simultaneously use its annual security outlook as de facto justification in supporting the forum to address the various regional security challenges, particularly the South China Sea.

For the collective agreement to hold, it must be binding as the defunct Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty of 1954 which brought together signatory states not necessarily from Southeast Asia, but more willing to act in the interest of a just peace and order in the region. With ASEAN leaders such as Philippines’ Duterte wary of angering China, the forum certainly is the most appropriate platform for a 21st-century security treaty that would set the example on accountability and ASEAN’s professed pursuit of upholding international law.

It would build on the commitment of the select members by virtue of their membership within the forum and the economic latitude they possess as a group in the event China throws another fit and threatens a trade war. Potential candidates must be led by Australia owing to its geography, followed by New Zealand; the United States; Canada; India; the Republic of Korea; Japan; and particularly not least, Indonesia, which argued for and succeeded in drafting the ASEAN Security Community Plan of Action in 2004.

Exacting accountability through a CSA Treaty Organization must be pursued through increased international presence where Beijing has been arguably the one major power exerting dominance in the region. Therefore, the treaty organization, once formed, could accomplish more through a wider array of possibilities that will keep on opening up to the signatory states in finally holding Beijing accountable—one is installing video cameras on all coast guard and naval warships conducting freedom-of-navigation patrols with live satellite feeds that could then be relayed to international media, giving international policymakers and world leaders the right venue for justifying potential sanctions and exposure of China’s inconsistency with its actions on the ground.

China’s “century of humiliation” may be over but the world’s communities of nations, particularly ASEAN, owe its people to unite and usher a rising China into a century of rules-based order. The collective treaty organization may be the key to doing just that for as the saying goes, if there’s a will, there’s a way.

Mark Payumo is an international affairs graduate student at the School of Global Policy and Strategy of the University of California, San Diego. He recently served in the US Navy and was formerly a Philippine Army Special Forces officer. He is a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy.