In the midst of COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented challenges, Vietnam handed over Chairmanship of the ASEAN for 2020 to Brunei Darussalam. The South China Sea contestations will remain a high priority for leaders in Brunei.
The year 2020 has perhaps been the most turbulent in recent memory of the global community. It was marked by COVID-19 pandemic, intense US-China rivalry involving trade issues and over Taiwan, and high-tensions in the South China Sea. In the midst of these unprecedented challenges, Vietnam handed over Chairmanship of the ASEAN for 2020 to Brunei Darussalam on November 16. By all counts, Vietnam did exceedingly well during its Chairmanship and conducted diplomacy with high levels of pragmatism and sophistication. Hanoi’s forward looking approach to issues concerning ASEAN’s centrality, its strong commitment to multilateralism and dialogue, and shaping an inclusive rules-based regional architecture were upheld, and were delivered to the satisfaction of the ASEAN Member States.
During the handing over ceremony of the Chairmanship, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam congratulated Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc for successfully conducting the affairs of the ASEAN during a very challenging year and fulfilling its promise of being “cohesive and responsive”. He also announced the theme for his country’s Chairmanship as “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper” and identified three priority areas: (a) Caring for the people and each other’s well-being; (b) Preparing for future opportunities and challenges; and (c) Prospering together as a unified region.
Brunei’s third priority area, i.e., ‘prospering together as a unified region’ merits attention and deliberations. The South China Sea has witnessed extraordinary contestation between China and the US. The ASEAN and other claimant States to the South China Sea have been under pressure from both protagonists. The recent US announcement about reestablishing an expeditionary-oriented ‘numbered fleet’ for the Indian and the Pacific Oceans which “would move across the Pacific until it is where our allies and partners see” so that “it can provide a much more formidable deterrence” may have caused some apprehension among the ASEAN Member States. Apparently, an official of the Singapore’s defence ministry told South China Morning Post that “Biden administration would exercise greater caution towards regional political sensitivities to properly review [the proposal] with US allies and partners if not scrapping the plan outright come next January.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign ministry cautioned Washington against exaggerating the China threat; “some people in the US have got into the habit of hyping up the so-called ‘China threat’, because they need excuses for their expanding military prowess and budget so as to seek regional and global hegemony”. Similarly, a PLA Second Artillery Corps officer warned that “setting up a US Navy fleet would be akin to grabbing China by the throat – it would hurt China’s development interests in terms of energy supply chains and investments in belt and road projects.”
The other issue which can potentially create nervousness among the ASEAN Member States relates to the ongoing deliberations on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. The Chairman’s Statement of the 36th ASEAN Summit had emphasised on exercising restraint and also avoiding acts that would complicate the situation in the South China Sea.
According to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), during the last 12 months, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ships “not only maintained a persistent presence at Second Thomas Shoal, Luconia Shoals, and Scarborough Shoal, but appears to have increased the frequency of patrols during the pandemic”. Since November 2020, the CCG ships have been harassing Malaysian drilling rigs and its supply ships engaged in hydrocarbon exploration activities and operating 44 nautical miles from Malaysia’s Sarawak State. Malaysia had to dispatch its naval ships to prevent harassment, but the Chinese Coastguard ship remains in the area and the standoff continues. It has been noted that China chooses such provocations when the domestic politics of the other country is turbulent and in this case Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’ government was facing a potential no-confidence vote.
It is fair to assume that China would continue to probe the South China Sea to test the resolve of the ASEAN Member States. Although Brunei lays claims to Louisa Reef, Owen Shoal and Rifleman Bank, it is the “only country among the claimant states that does not assert sovereignty over these islands, nor does it have any military presence there”. In July this year, Brunei Darussalam declared that it strongly believes in adherence to the 1982 UNCLOS, promotes bilateral mechanism for conflict-resolution and stressed the importance of the ASEAN-China code of conduct. This is in line with the ASEAN’s approach and pursuit of a collective way to resolve territorial and other disputes with China.
Vietnam is expected to remain committed to work with Brunei Darussalam during its Chairmanship. It would also support other ASEAN Member States whose economies have been impacted by the pandemic through enhanced commitment and also support the Association towards realising the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research
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Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.