Foreign ministers from China and the 10 member-states of the Southeast Asian nations will meet face-to-face, for the first time, on June 7 in Chongqing, a southwestern city in China, to discuss the competing maritime claims in the South China Sea.
For almost a decade, both sides have been discussing a code of conduct in the disputed sea to defuse tensions, build confidence and make a rule on how states should behave in a contested area.
It is a rules-based international agreement that would firm up an informal deal done in Phnom Penh in 2002 which restrained claimant-states in the South China Sea from using force or threats to use force and intimidation to assert claims.
It also prohibited claimant-states from occupying or building structures on uninhabited land features in the Spratlys, a provision which China and four members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) had strictly observed.
Even if China built artificial islands in the Spratlys, it did not occupy new territories. The other claimant-states have done reclamations but not as expansive as China had done since 2013.
As China began its island-building operation in 2013, it also agreed with Asean to start formal talks on a code of conduct, which started only after the Asean summit in Manila in 2017 when a code of conduct framework was agreed.
Both sides have moved forward after a common draft was agreed and were almost done in the second reading of the draft until the coronavirus pandemic intervened last year. It put brakes on formal negotiations as diplomats could not meet face-to-face.
The Chongqing meeting is significant but the discussions could be candid and frank as China has stepped up its activities in the South China Sea from the start of the year.
For the last three years, Asean has been resisting efforts by the United States to draw the bloc into its side against China after unveiling its Indo-Pacific strategy to keep “free” and “open” the sealanes in the South China Sea.
Asean struggled to serve as the bridge between two rival major powers for control of the region.
The US has been urging Southeast Asian countries to take a stronger stand against China’s bullying, promising support by flexing its own muscles in the disputed sea.
China has been using its soft power trying to get smaller states in the region deeply indebted, providing loans, grants and more recently vaccines against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
But there are recent developments in the South China Sea, which could push Southeast Asian countries into the waiting arms of the United States.
First, China passed a law, at the start of 2021, which made many countries worry after Beijing authorized its maritime law enforcement vessels to fire at foreign ships that may intrude and threaten its sovereignty.
The Coast Guard law really becomes problematic because China has excessive claims in the South China Sea where vessels of smaller Southeast Asian states operate.
Second, from December 2020, China has deployed hundreds of fishing and militia vessels in the Spratlys, encroaching into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
It has become a source of escalating friction between Manila and Beijing from late March as the Philippines demanded that China remove all its vessels in its sovereign waters.
Manila has also sent dozens of naval, coast guard and civilian vessels to patrol the contested waters and drive away Chinese ships from its exclusive economic zone.
Third, Malaysia recently scrambled fighters to intercept 16 Chinese transport planes that violated its airspace in the South China Sea.
This was the first time China intruded into Malaysia’s air space but its vessels have been encroaching into Kuala Lumpur’s maritime domain, threatening the Southeast Asian country’s offshore oil fields.
Both Indonesia and Vietnam have also been jealously guarding their sovereign waters as China has been, from time to time, sending fishing fleets and, in Hanoi’s case, a Chinese oil rig in its exclusive economic zone.
But there’s a more disturbing development that would convince Asean states that American presence was needed as a counterbalance to a rising China in the region.
President Xi Jinping personally went to China’s South Sea Fleet to witness the launching of the second People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s 075 Amphibious Assault Ship in April. The first helicopter dock ship was launched in Shanghai in 2019.
The assault ship can carry up to 900 Marines capable of assaulting and seizing control of land features occupied by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam in the Spratly anytime.
China’s South Sea Fleet, which has jurisdiction in the Spratlys, has also added a submarine and a destroyer, the largest surface combatant in China’s navy.
China has long dwarfed Asean navies combined but the newest addition to its fleet further tilted the balance of power to Beijing’s favor.
Only Cambodia and Laos would probably stay behind China as these two poor countries depend so much on Beijing’s economic assistance.
China may have obtained a naval base in Cambodia, drawing angry protest from the United States after Phnom Penh tore down American structures in a naval base.
Myanmar is too far and too busy pacifying its country after a February coup that toppled the government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
There is also uncertainty in Manila as an important military agreement, the Visiting Forces Agreement, hangs in a balance two months before the twice-extended suspension of a notice of termination is implemented.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s national security team favored another six-month suspension because of the US security umbrella in the region, which is also a stabilizing factor.
Duterte can decide to end the pact as a way of paying a debt of gratitude to China’s token donation of Covid-19 vaccines and unfulfilled economic assistance.
But the presidential elections next year could prevent Duterte from kicking the Americans out as more than 75 percent of Filipinos trusted the United States compared to China 22 percent based on an independent poll.
Duterte would not want to alienate voters by ending the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States ahead of the May 2022 elections if he wants his successor to win.
China’s aggressive and assertive actions in the South China Sea have given the United States the momentum to gather more allies to counter its rival’s creeping influence in the region.
Southeast Asian states, which do not want to take sides, are now being pushed to the American side as they have realized the China threat is real and getting larger.
The US is assembling a huge force to challenge China’s South China Sea’s nine-dash-line claim, bringing in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, and Japan to patrol the sealanes in disputed waters.
Southeast Asian countries may not be far behind in joining the freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea as China grows its fangs and shows its true colors behind its promises of trade, investments and economic assistance.