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The 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits and Related Summits scheduled later this month will take place in a turbulent time wherein two important issues will be high on the agenda of the grouping. First, the developments concerning Myanmar, a thorny issue for the block that can potentially undermine ASEAN’s credibility and second, the ‘AUKUS’ under which Australia will receive technical support from the US and UK to build nuclear-powered submarine that has consequences for the strategic stability in the region.

Earlier in September, during the virtual ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting (ASEAN SOM) to review preparations for the upcoming ASEAN Summits, the senior officials acknowledged the progress in implementing the outcomes of ASEAN 2020, the ASEAN Charter, post-2025 ASEAN Community vision, and sub-regional cooperation. During the deliberations, Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung, Vietnam head for the ASEAN SOM, had emphasised on “ASEAN’s solidarity, unity and centrality, promoting the bloc’s common voice in international affairs related to peace, security and stability in the region, and ensuring a balanced approach in ASEAN’s relations with its partners” in the light of the dynamic nature of the international and regional situations.

There is no doubt that the security dynamics in the South China Sea have consequences for ASEAN Member States. In June this year, officials from China and ASEAN met in Chongqing and discussed the ‘Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)’ and exchanged views on its effective implementation. They also agreed to strengthen practical maritime cooperation and consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).  China and ASEAN now have a provisional agreement on the Preamble section of the Single Draft Negotiating Text. However, given the complexity of the COC, long drawn negotiations cannot be ruled before a substantive and effective COC comes into effect. Under such circumstances, South China Sea issue will necessarily be a high priority agenda for the ASEAN.  

It is important to recall the Chairman’s Statement of the 36th ASEAN Summit had “emphasised the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to the COC negotiations” and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc urged China to accelerate talks on an effective and efficient COC in line with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.

Similarly,  President Nguyen Phu Trong in his message to the High-level General Debate of the UN General Assembly conveyed that while Vietnam is committed to the “maintenance and promotion of peace, stability, maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation in the East Sea (South China Sea)” and upholding international law, particularly the 1982 UNCLOS, emphasised and called on “all concerned parties to exercise restraint, avoid unilateral acts that would complicate the situation, and settle disputes and differences through peaceful means with due respect for diplomatic and legal processes.”

Meanwhile, China continues to pursue aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and pressurizing ASEAN Member States.   Presence of Chinese survey ships that are now generally escorted by China Coast Guard vessels have been a feature in the South China Sea. These vessels enter the EEZs of other claimants to conduct underwater surveys as also disrupt legitimate survey operations by other claimants. For instance, Chinese survey vessel Da Yang Hao was forced to leave Malaysian waters after Kuala Lumpur summoned the Chinese ambassador and lodged diplomatic protest. This was distinct departure from the earlier approaches wherein Malaysia had preferred ‘quit diplomacy’.

Similarly a Chinese vessel Haiyang Dizhi 10, escorted by coast guard vessels, conducted an extended survey in Indonesia’s EEZ. Apparently, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian to query him about the extended seabed mapping exercise. Interestingly, after taking a break to re-supply in late September, Haiyang Dizhi 10 has returned in October and is now reported to be operating in Indonesian waters in the North Natuna in Tuna Block — an important oil and gas field in the area.

Although the Indonesian Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment Affairs, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, has stated that Indonesia “respected freedom of navigation in Natuna Sea”, there is immense domestic pressure on the  government to answer about “rules regarding scientific research activities at sea” and in this case about China.

Notwithstanding the aggressive posturing by China and unsettling developments such as the issues concerning Myanmar and AUKUS, ASEAN Member must relentlessly pursue the South China Sea issue that gained momentum during Vietnam’s Chairmanship.

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
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.

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