South China Sea as the Second “Persian Gulf”: ASEAN Vision of One Community Can Be Affected

By Phar Kim Beng

The tensions in South China Sea have ebbed and flowed for several centuries. But after US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared in July 2010 that the US had a ‘national interest’ in the South China Sea issue, followed by US-Vietnam naval exercises in the Sea one month later, the mercury went up.

In more ways than one, it has stayed there. This is despite the fact that China has pulled back from its earlier assertion that the South China Sea, too, constituted its ‘core interest.’ The motion of great power rivalry seems in place.

At any rate, the new stance from Washington and Beijing marked not only the internationalisation of the South China Sea disputes, but also the opening of a potential new front in US-China rivalry.

To all that, one must ask: Can the strategic rivalry between the two affect the role of ASEAN as the anchor of security, economic, and social cultural community in the region?

Pundits who believe in complex interdependence and globalization are already arguing to the contrary. That ASEAN will not choose between one versus the other. They can’t. After all, the two countries are financially, and economically, enmeshed themselves.

Just as they cannot afford a zero-sum game, the weaker ASEAN cannot choose one over the other since the forward deployment of the US to contain China is never assured.

When the US lost to the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War, it packed its bags and left. While it moved its forces as far as the Philippines, it has not gotten itself enmeshed in another Asian land or maritime conflict since 1974.

So, why then the palpable concern over the US and Chinese rivalry when the former may not have the tenacity to stay deployed in the region? A lot of it goes to President Barack Obama’s assertion that the US is closely connected to Asia beyond sharing the Pacific shoreline.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is also set to be concluded in a year; although the president will lack the trade authority to conclude any trade agreement unless he is re-elected by the end of 2012 for another term.

Furthermore, the US determination to remain in the region has manifested, slowly but surely, in the creation of the new military training base in Darwin, Australia. On the day before President Obama attended the ASEAN Summit, he announced that 2,500 US marines would be based there.

Although Indonesia ostensibly complained against the US military presence, it did not do anything more than to express its surprise – a sign that Indonesia would not mind a more muscular US in the region to counter balance China.

In more ways than one, China has itself to blame. By claiming the entire South China Sea as its own on historical and archaeological argument, without resorting to the Law of the Sea, it riled the neighbours around her into the unfortunate belief of a China threat.

By claiming the entire South China Sea, Beijing also pressed itself right into the areas adjacent to the Natuna Oilfields of Indonesia. Indonesia may not have the hard and soft power to put a check to China’s maritime ambition.

But Jakarta can certainly free ride on the alliance of the US and Australia. At the 19th ASEAN Summit, there was no rally or demonstration against the US nor Australia delegation; a clear sign that Jakarta was comfortable with the strategic positions of both on Southeast Asia, and by extension, the South China Sea.

Will more US-China rivalry rattle ASEAN? Yes, the potential is there if the Southeast Asian claimants to the South China Sea begin to break ranks with each other. Malaysia and Brunei only want a few islands. Vietnam and the Philippines have more ambitious claims that challenge China’s.

At issue is also the “value” – real or perceived – placed on the South China Sea. Chinese officials have given the most optimistic estimates of resource wealth in the area. According to figures quoted by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), one Chinese estimate puts possible oil reserves as high as 213 billion barrels – 10 times the proven reserves of the US.

But American scientists have estimated the amount of oil at 28 billion barrels. According to the EIA, the real wealth of the area may well be natural gas reserves.Estimates say, the area holds about 900 trillion cubic ft. (25 trillion cubic m) – the same as the proven reserves of Qatar. The area is also one of the region’s main shipping lanes, and is home to a fishing ground that supplies the livelihoods of thousands of people.

To the degree South China Sea is seen as rich energy basin – especially at a time when the US is in deepening economic malaise, coupled with China’s effort to reassert its economic dominance – the incentive to claim South China Sea in some form would be high.

What is perhaps just as critical is the cohesion of ASEAN in face of US and China rivalry. While the member states will not choose one over at the expense of the other, those that gain more from their respective strategies with US and China would lead to potential mistrust.

Simmering distrust, rivalry, and anger will linger to deter ASEAN from taking its three pillared ASEAN Community more seriously by 2015 and beyond. Nationalism will also remain in the amber. Politicians of more extreme pedigree can easily latch on to the nationalist mood to build up his constituency; naturally at the expense of a peaceful and accommodating position in South China Sea.

In sum, South China Sea can, and will remain, a livewire in ASEAN, especially if ASEAN continues to play the role of a facilitator – without finding the right mechanism to allow all sides to resolve their conflicting claims in a proper manner.

At the recent 19th ASEAN Summit, calls to create the ASEAN Institute of Conflict and Reconciliation (AICR) were heeded by Indonesia and other member states. AICR would be backed by the respective think tanks in the region.

Its establishment represents another step to tackle internecine conflicts in the region. Its establishment represents another step to tackle internecine conflicts in the region, of which South China Sea could be one of them.

Although South China Sea is not formally an ASEAN issue, it has various member states affected by it. Therefore, it is incumbent on ASEAN to find a way out of the current logjam before there are any incidents at sea between the US and China, or, China and other claimants.

Indeed, analysts like Tetsuo Kotani in Japan have affirmed that with or without the purported oil and gas potential in the South China Sea, “China would still make it the top priority, since the Sea is integral to China’s nuclear strategy.” Possessing a credible sea based deterrent is a priority for China’s military strategy too. Hence, such tensions must be quickly addressed without which a small incident at sea can have impact on the region and the rest of the world.

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