Maritime diplomacy is the management of international relations at sea and the use of ocean-related resources to manage such relations. Maritime diplomacy should be applied in the South China Sea (SCS) to sort out issues of assertive behavior, freedom of navigation and overflight, support for the rules-based international order and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
As China has been acting more forcefully and vigorously in the region, asserting that the SCS is part of its non-negotiable “core interests” and that it will use force to defend it, ASEAN’s attempts to engage mainland China through the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea has put its own cohesion in complete disarray.
The ASEAN First principle in dealing with non-ASEAN parties, in this case the 10 + 1 formula, is totally sidelined. As China insists on bilateral talks on the SCS with ASEAN member countries who share a claim to the area, China has grossly incapacitated the principle of 10 ASEAN member states plus China in managing the SCS.
Negotiations over a Code of Conduct to preserve stability in the SCS are complicated by the fact that not every ASEAN member state is involved in the SCS dispute. More importantly, for China, such a code would limit its activities in the SCS and hamper its strategy to increase its control of the region through maritime patrols; hence its tactics of delaying the formulation of a Code of Conduct.
If ASEAN is to reassert itself in managing the SCS, it should reverse this position. ASEAN should liberate itself from the Chinese stance and leave negotiations on the Code of Conduct. It should restore its ASEAN First principle in dealing with dialogue partners like China.
Ideally, among others, the bloc should reinvigorate ASEAN and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which came into force in 1997, and envelop the SCS into ASEAN’s Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality and its prime management instrument, the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.
There are, however, two serious impediments. First is the Chinese “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative linking China by land and sea to Asia and parts of Europe. Mainland Southeast Asia is defined as a key hub for China, especially China’s Yunnan province, to develop an international transportation network to both South and Southeast Asia through the new Langcang-Mekong Cooperation Framework.
This upgraded version of the Greater Mekong Subregion is key to a breakthrough in China’s deeper involvement in Southeast Asia’s infrastructure development. China is by now economically highly integrated with mainland Southeast Asia. These countries are less developed and hence need urgent assistance in order to be able to participate fully in the ASEAN Economic Community.
This is the key leverage that China holds over Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and even Thailand. This will be the main stumbling block for ASEAN to pressure China in managing the SCS. Astonishing growth in the region is reversing decades of stagnation, partly involving China.
A case in point here is the highspeed railway between Kunming and Vientiane, the showpiece of the Chinese Economic Belt in ASEAN. It involves the construction of 154 bridges, 76 tunnels and 31 train stations and is estimated to cost US$7 billion. Laos will finance it with concessionary loans from China and is confident that the new infrastructure will create significant economic growth in the long-term, according to researcher Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim. ASEAN’s biggest challenge is how to maintain the ASEAN First principle in facing China.
Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi’s attempt to ensure that ASEAN reached a consensus under Laos’ chairmanship at the latest regional summit last year is a first step in that direction. More serious attempts will have to follow if ASEAN wishes to revive its ASEAN First principle vis-á-vis China and its OBOR initiative.
The other impediment is that ASEAN Summits have become too bureaucratized.
The interests of leaders in ASEAN have diverged, with each member emphasizing national prerogatives, thus weakening the regional initiative. ASEAN Summits have developed into leaders confirming the bureaucratic process of ASEAN’s decisions. So far, ASEAN has not given any statement on the Trump Presidency.
In spite of the odds, Indonesia will have to re-emphasize the creation of an integrated Southeast Asia, the vision of ASEAN, and align it with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s notion of a global maritime axis stretching from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, positioning Indonesia as an Indo-Pacific power.
Indonesia will have to build a reliable regional maritime force in cooperation with ASEAN to complement its maritime diplomacy and to minimize sources of conflicts at sea such as illegal fishing, piracy, violations of sovereign borders, territorial disputes and pollution.
A reliable regional maritime force is sine-qua-non for patrolling maritime territories and defending key transport lines. Jokowi has been quoted as saying that Indonesia is on its way to developing into a maritime power, while China proposes to build the 21st century “maritime silk road.”
“The two initiatives fit with each other,” he said. However, Indonesia will have to delineate its position clearly vis-à-vis China. A stronger Indonesia will empower the overall capabilities of ASEAN.
ASEAN would then be better suited to deal with issues of piracy, people smuggling, environmental disasters and the safety of its waters. Indonesia will indeed have to delicately balance differences with China, a source of foreign investment for upgrading its infrastructure particularly in the eastern part of the country.
This is Indonesia’s big challenge in its game of diplomacy: Build up its maritime forces to accentuate its maritime diplomacy to empower ASEAN and convince China that its maritime silk road through ASEAN waters will only succeed if it recognizes Indonesia’s maritime fulcrum and recognizes the need to work on Indonesian and ASEAN terms.