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Home arrow Geography arrow Territorial disputes in the South China Sea : navigating rough waters


ASEAN's awkward situation is aptly summed up by Ramses Amer, "The role that ASEAN can play is a rather complex one, since five of its member-states are involved in conflict situations within the South China Sea proper and four have sovereignty claims to all or parts of the Spratly Archipelago. This creates a situation in which ASEAN cannot play the role of a third-party mediator between the PRC and other claimants, as these claimants are member-states of the Association" (2002, p. 123). In 1995, Lee wrote that "ASEAN's different perceptions of China and especially its own share of disputes in the South China Sea among Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei would affect the formation of an ASEAN approach. In addition, the priorities of each member state in dealing with the South China Sea issue could be different" (1995, p. 535). Emmers concluded in 2003 that "ASEAN's influence on the South China Sea dispute is clearly limited" because of its disunity (2003, p. 143).

Events since then have reinforced the accuracy of these observations and the implications for regional peace and security. The stakes are high for ASEAN's ability to manage the South China Sea disputes: "there is a lot riding on the success of the venture - such as ASEAN centrality in security paradigms for the region, ASEAN solidarity and the tone and tenor of ASEAN-China relations" (Valencia, 2012). Singapore's leaders are clearly aware that the broader strategic implications of how and whether ASEAN is able to deal with China transcend the South China Sea disputes. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (2012b) noted, "Many countries are watching us closely. They will read how China deals with difficult bilateral problems with its neighbours as a sign of what China's rise means for the world. They will scrutinise ASEAN to see if it can deal with difficult issues effectively. ASEAN and China must not allow this isolated issue to affect their overall positive relationship," Former secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan summed up the challenge for ASEAN, "Knowing that the region is increasingly being interested and a lot of forces, a lot of players are converging on the region, therefore that principle of neutrality is extremely important. ASEAN must play a balancing act effectively" (cited in Kyodo News, 2012). Besides maintaining an increasingly fraught sense of unity amongst its members, ASEAN also has to engage with a slew of Great Powers from China, the United States, and Japan on regional security issues. Singaporean leaders have continued to maintain that, "only a united ASEAN can credibly play a central role in engaging major powers towards the common goal of promoting regional peace, stability and prosperity" (Shanmugam, 2012b). The Indonesian foreign minister too noted that in spite of periodic spats, "Indonesia believes we can have more influence if we are united. We need to quickly get ourselves back on track" (cited in Launey, 2012). ASEAN's ability to present a united front and viable framework for conflict-management over the South China Sea could determine whether regional security is driven by balance of power politics as ASEAN claimant states individually seek out powerful backers or regionalised consensual arrangements that help mitigate the vast power asymmetries between China and smaller states in the region.

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