The recent summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) could produce a Chinese nod to the implementation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (SCS) by 2021 after the sixth Asean Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) concluded in Bangkok. The joint statement of the ADMM+ has approached the SCS issue with apposite caution calling for peaceful resolution of disputes through international legal frameworks including the United Nations Convention on Law of Sea (UNCLOS).
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The focus of ADMM+ this year revolved around the Indo-Pacific region as members cited the Asean-China Maritime Exercise of 2018 and Asean-United States Maritime Exercise of 2019 as a means of strengthening Asean centrality – a key instrument of this regional construct.
For the SCS dispute resolution, however, it is evident from the prevailing political and diplomatic environment that the road ahead lies not in coercing China – as the United States intends to do – but in being politically milder, yet socially assertive.
Animation film vetoed
Vietnam recently banned the broadcasting of animation film Abominable made by DreamWorks.
This is because the film carries a scene depicting the controversial nine-dash line, a geographic line plotted by China to assert its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
Vietnam in principle rejects this line because it trespasses on its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a 200-nautical mile of continental shelf guaranteed to coastal states by UNCLOS 1982.
In fact, the question of Vietnam’s sovereignty in its EEZ now seem to have taken a leap from boardrooms to a larger public discourse.
Not surprisingly, the formal geopolitics of the SCS have now penetrated into the domain of popular geopolitics – a study of popular representations through films, media, cartoons etc.
The media representation of events and actors and the creation of popular perceptions is not a new phenomenon in international relations. Many Hollywood films have touched upon the geopolitical imaginations of the masses and have helped create popular perceptions to support US interests worldwide.
The SCS has a strong geo-economic angle in terms of resources and transport connectivity.
It hosts an estimated 11.2 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet gas of gas. Also, it is endowed with other resources including natural gas hydrates, minerals and fisheries.
Several countries including India have a stake in Vietnam’s EEZ.
As the spill-over effect of the United States-China trade war looms over the region, and mega-regionalism leads the show, there has been a Chinese desire to revisit Asean’s concerns on the SCS dispute.
This is largely based on the Chinese consternation that it does not want any technical or military presence of a non-Asean country.
Furthermore, whereas the United States is also looking forward to a larger role in the Indo-Pacific and, given its understanding of China as an adversary, the geopolitical rivalries are unlikely to abate.
While the United States accuses China of asserting unlawful maritime claims, China blames the United States of flexing its muscles in the SCS and engaging in a fact-distorting criticism against it.
Philippines maintains silence
In 2016, the Philippines won a politico-legal battle – although a non-binding verdict – against Chinese SCS claims in the United Nations backed Permanent Court of Arbitration. But under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines which was once very vocal against China, no longer sees China as an adversary. It has benefited from soft loans and aid and prefers to maintain silence on the SCS dispute – on which it once had pleaded to the United Nations to rename a part of the SCS as the West Philippine Sea.
Another stakeholder in the dispute, i.e. Malaysia, has also maintained a milder approach, if not a silence, after China pumped in heavy investments in Malaysia under the aegis of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
However, that does not imply that either the Philippines or Malaysia are in favour of any joint exploration with China in their respective EEZs.
The Philippines is still contesting the nine-dash line although with a political mildness as it recently resumed stamping Chinese passports with pages bearing the image of this controversial line. Recently, Malaysia and China agreed to establish a joint dialogue mechanism to examine the SCS dispute. Cambodia, of course, is not a claimant in the SCS and maintains a pro-China stance.
Vietnam most vocal
The most affected and the most vocal country in the SCS dispute has been Vietnam.
In a recent escalation of tensions in the SCS in September this year, China deployed a deep-water oil rig, Haiyang Shiyou 982, with a drilling capacity up to a depth of 5,000 metres in Vietnam’s EEZ.
China argued that it was meant for scientific and seismic studies, but Vietnam claimed that it was meant for unlawful interference in its EEZ. Later, after a brief standoff, the Chinese vessel left Vietnam’s EEZ.
Vietnam, although diplomatically pro-active on the SCS issue, tends to employ socially assertive and popular media instruments to oppose Chinese claims.
Conflict, of course, is not a solution because neither the governments of China and absolutely none in the Asean would risk it, nor would their people be inclined to endorse it.
Vinod Anand is senior fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. Faisal Ahmed teaches trade and geopolitics at the FORE School of Management, New Delhi, India.