Tensions in the South China Sea are heating up. Record breaking incursions by Chinese jets and warships into Taiwanese territory, military exercises which simulate an invasion, and to top it off China’s Foreign Minister was abruptly dismissed in a move shrouded in mystery.
The regional security situation is rapidly deteriorating, and Southeast Asian powers could soon be caught in the crossfire.
But Taiwan is hardly the only country where China is ramping up hostilities. The Chinese coastguard recently attacked Philippine supply boats which were on their way to resupply one of their bases in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Yet even this is not an isolated incident – China has also recently aggressively targeted boats belonging to Vietnam and Malaysia, two of the five ASEAN nations that dispute China’s claim to the entirety of the South China Sea.
These escalating tensions are ultimately driven by China’s claim to the whole South China Sea, using it’s so-called “nine dash line”, which in 2016 was rejected by an international tribunal court in The Hague. Yet since then China has not backed down, and in recent years has even constructed dozens of manmade islands which are slowly being militarized.
This is a problem. The South China Sea is one of the most vitally important shipping lanes in the world – a third of global maritime trade, or $3.37 trillion worth of goods, pass through each year. For China, 80% of its energy imports come through the area, as well as 39% of its total trade.
But trade aside, it’s access to lucrative and dwindling natural resources that really drive these competing claims. Whoever has control of the South China Sea controls access to one of the richest and least developed fossil fuel reserves in the world – beneath the seabed lie billions of barrels worth of oil and hundreds of trillions of cubic feet’s worth of natural gas.
Yet, no one from Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam can agree on who it belongs to, leaving various ASEAN nations vulnerable to China hostility.
For example, Malaysia has faced increased diplomatic and military pressure from China over its development of the Kasawari gas field, estimated to contain 3 trillion feet of recoverable gas assets. And Vietnam, who faced deadly clashes with China in the 1970’s and 80’s, still encounters collisions and stand offs between Vietnamese vessels and Chinese oil surveyors.
China’s strategy is a divide and conquer approach – it hopes to isolate nations from their ASEAN partners and coerce them into giving up claims on disputed territory using a mix of economic and military clout.
To counter this, ASEAN nations must work as a united bloc to counter China’s divisive and exploitative strategy. And this means laying aside disputes currently held with each other. For example, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all lay claim to the Spratly Islands, and Malaysia and Vietnam are in hot contest over oil and gas blocks off the coast of Borneo.
But there are other issues besides territorial claims that threaten regional unity.
Just consider the vexatious claim by the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu (a group of islands belonging to the Philippines off the coast of eastern Malaysian Borneo) which sued the Malaysian government following Malaysia’s refusal to pay a colonial era annual fee based off a largely discredited 1878 treaty between the Sulu and British colonists.
Shockingly, in 2022, an international arbitration tribunal awarded the heirs $15 billion, a serious blow for Malaysian public finances which created unnecessary and challenging problems for the new President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Although he did not endorse the case, he also would not deny that the Philippines’ longstanding claim to the North Borneo region of Malaysia, now known as Sabah. This had an obvious impact on relations between the Philippines and Malaysia – which only worsened when it was revealed the Spanish arbitrator, Gonzalo Stampa, faces criminal prosecution in his home country due for contempt of court for continuing to pursue the case despite being ordered to stop.
As one leading international lawyer pointed out, the case was premised on flawed readings of colonial history given that the Sulu never really had sovereignty over the region in the first place. Although Malaysia successfully appealed the decision in a Paris court which effectively annulled the $15 billion award earlier this year, the damage was done. Not only have Malaysia and the Sulu claimants in the Philippines endured a lengthy and costly legal battle, cases such as these harm the reputation of international arbitration mechanisms which remain a vitally important tool to peacefully resolve complex and tense disputes between nation states.
With tensions increasing in the South China Sea, ASEAN nations on the frontline of China’s coercive intimidation campaign must put aside petty disputes that threaten to undermine key partnerships. This means considering traditional high-level diplomatic avenues to resolve disputes, and uniting in the face of greater threats such as China’s quest for regional hegemony.
If they don’t move past these disputes, ASEAN nations can look to Taiwan, or even Ukraine, as examples of what happens to isolated nations when they don’t have the support required to stand up to neighbouring aggressors bent on confrontation.
And that is a future – for all our sakes – I hope we can do without.