III The Role of ASEAN: Challenges and Choices
ASEAN's Position on the South China Sea and Implications for Regional Peace and Security
Yee Kuang Heng
Since its founding in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has weathered its fair share of regional security challenges. Cold War conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia to territorial disputes between its member states such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia have long concerned ASEAN. Indeed, the Philippines' claims to Sabah in 1968-1969 put a spanner in the works of regional integration. In the twenty-first century, territorial disputes in the South China Sea dominate ASEAN's security agenda. Like all regional organisations such as the EU (European Union) or the NATO (Non-Atlantic Treaty Organisation), having to reconcile the varied national interests and ambitions of its component member states in order to present a concerted "regional" front is an extremely tall order. Even the EU, widely seen as the paragon of regional integration, struggled to convince northern members, such as Germany and Finland, to bail out southern members Greece and Spain. NATO members also differed over how to deal with the Kosovo crisis in 1999.
Member states of any regional organisation inevitably perceive different stakes on any given issue, a problem that has plagued ASEAN as it deals with the South China Sea problem. The underlying reason is simple: not all member states are claimants. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei have staked out their claims in the South China Sea. Chinese and Philippine naval vessels squaring off near the Scarborough shoals in the Spratly Islands in April and May 2012 is only the latest in a long line of skirmishes dating back to the 1970s. In late March 2014, the Second Thomas Shoal emerged as another potential flashpoint, as the Philippines was prevented by Chinese coast guard vessels from resupplying its Marines stationed on a rusting Second World War-vintage ship beached there to mark its claims. Other key members such as Thailand,
Cambodia, and Singapore on the other hand are explicitly identifying themselves as "non-claimant" states. As Singapore's prime minister Lee Hsien Loong explained, "Singapore has taken a clear and consistent position on the South China Sea issue. We are not a claimant country, take no sides in any of the territorial disputes, nor can we judge the merits of the various claims. However, Singapore does have certain critical interests at stake" (Lee, 2012a). These interests include security of maritime sea-lanes of communication. Using this category of "non-claimant" state already suggests that solidarity with "claimant" states who also happen to be fellow ASEAN partners is not necessarily automatic.
This chapter is broken into three sections, beginning with an attempt to understand the various aspects of and limits to what can be considered ASEAN's common position as a regional entity on the South China Sea. Second, a discussion of the difficulties ASEAN has faced in forging consensus on a common position by all its member states. Finally, it examines the difficulties and implications for ASEAN centrality and its role in regional security.