In coming weeks, the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the United Nations is due to deliver its verdict on a case brought by the Philippines seeking a definitive ruling on China’s most extensive maritime claims under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (or UNCLOS). The verdict will almost certainly include the legal status of Beijing’s nine-dash line claim and whether that expansive claim to almost 90% of the South China Sea is consistent with entitlements under UNCLOS principles. If the court rules, as almost all legal experts expect, that China is making claims far in excess of UNCLOS principles and settled international convention, then most of China’s nine-dash-line map can be formally deemed legal nonsense.
When the legal ruling is released, and assuming that the nine-dash-line is not recognized by current international law, the Philippines is sure to demand that China abandon its “might is right” approach to these territorial disputes. Manila will likely find support from Vietnam, the U.S., Japan and Australia in opposing the Chinese stance. Less certain is what Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore will say. It is time for them to speak up.
In international politics, the capacity to exercise leadership is largely derived from hard power. The voice of the U.S. matters, not only because Washington seeks to defend an open and rules-based order, but because it remains the most powerful country in Asia by some distance. The same can be said for Japan, India and Australia who are all great powers in their immediate geographical environments. If these countries were to remain silent, China could easily dismiss other smaller voices in the region such as other claimants in the South China Sea — the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
These and other smaller voices matter for a couple of reasons.
One comes down to shaping the debate and the public narrative. Beijing knows it has few supporters when it comes to the South China Sea dispute. But in addition to claiming back its “historic waters,” China’s response is that the issue is all a matter of power politics. The U.S. and its allies are trying to keep China pinned behind the so-called First Island Chain, a chain of archipelagos that cover the Kuril Islands, Japan, Taiwan, northern Philippines and Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula. This will keep the People’s Liberation Army Navy in check and entrench the ascendancy of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and allied navies.
China is trying to expand beyond the First Island Chain, with advocates arguing that China has the strategic right to do so and it is the U.S. which is the interloper in the region. What great power would accept being hemmed in by a distant superpower that is only in the region because of the historical accident of World War II? As far as Beijing is concerned, one should also accept that China is seeking strategic freedom in surrounding regions and the argument made by the U.S. and its allies about preserving order and the like is merely a fig leaf for keeping China in check. This is why China accuses the U.S. of perpetuating a Cold War mentality.
In short, the Chinese approach is to present the security competition as a contest between the established power of the U.S. and the rising power of China. But the South China Sea is not just about the U.S. and China. There are 10 other sovereign Southeast Asian countries, each with their own independent and legitimate interests. That China has a population 45 times larger than Malaysia does not mean Beijing’s preferences matter 45 times more. There is more going on in the South China Sea dispute than a power game between two large countries and their allies.
This is why the voices of Southeast Asian countries that are not treaty allies of the U.S. matter. Beijing can easily rebuff scolding from the U.S. and allies such as Japan, the Philippines and Australia by dismissing it as simple posturing over strategic self-interest. It is not so easy to do the same if opposition comes from Singapore and Malaysia, which both enjoy excellent strategic relations with the U.S. but still guard their strategic autonomy jealously.
An even more important voice is Indonesia, Jakarta is committed to not just strategic autonomy, meaning the capacity to act freely, but also independence and non-alignment. No one could accuse Jakarta of ever being Washington’s lackey. By virtue of its status as the most populous country in Southeast Asia, it is the natural leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Despite their obvious interest in preventing Chinese dominance of their maritime surroundings, these countries have largely left it to the U.S. and its allies to conduct a diplomatic offensive against China. Support for U.S. efforts to check China’s expansion in the South China Sea is only offered behind closed doors. As Beijing continues to change “facts on the ground,” and with a legal ruling imminent, such a softly-softly approach is no longer acceptable. All ASEAN members claim to support a rule-based order rooted in international law. But increasingly, the standard they refuse to publicly criticize is the standard they are telling China they are willing to accept.
Finally, ASEAN will fade into irrelevance if Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are not prepared to stand up to China. The organization has been paralyzed with indecision ever since China began to push its way around the region: accelerating the building of artificial islands, frequently using coast guard vessels to ram fishing Vietnamese and Philippine vessels even when the latter vessels were within the Exclusive Economic Zone of their countries, and putting an oil rig in Vietnam’s EEZ are three illustrations. When it comes to taking diplomatic positions, ASEAN’s insistence on unanimity has long stopped being a virtue. If these above three countries agree with the Philippines and Vietnam, it becomes far more feasible to pressure the other members to support a strong statement supporting UNCLOS as the only basis on which to resolve maritime disputes.
If ASEAN cannot present a united front on an issue which affects the most vital strategic interests of its main members, then the organization deserves to fall by the wayside as the stakes increase. Should that occur, the capacity of all Southeast Asian states to band together and defend their interests will have been significantly weakened.
The decision by the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration will not in itself change Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea. But unenforceable legal findings are not worthless. Every country, including China, seeks to justify their actions in order to legitimize them. The more that regional voices demand that China adhere to legal judgements, the more it will weaken Beijing’s position in defending its nine-dash-line claim that international law — and much of the world — considers indefensible.