As China stepped up its aggressive military activities in the disputed South China Sea, exploiting the distraction caused by the coronavirus pandemic, there is an urgent need for Southeast Asian countries that have conflicting claims on the strategic waters to come together and challenge Beijing’s bullying.

In violation of international laws and an informal code it had agreed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2002, a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near Woody island early this month.

Its survey ship, escorted by coast guard ships, was sailing close to Malaysian oil fields in disputed waters. A China People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) warship has pointed its naval guns on a Philippine Navy corvette in another part of South China Sea.

China capped its irresponsible action late in April when it created two administrative districts to assert its claims on almost the entire South China Sea – one governing the Paracels in the north and another in the south covering the Spratlys.

Southeast Asian states Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam immediately protested China’s move, with Manila calling on Beijing to adhere to Article 5 of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed in Phnom Penh in 2002.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said China’s recent actions in the South China Sea have eroded the trust and confidence built by Beijing over the years when it agreed to negotiate for a formal Code of Conduct, which both China and Asean hope to adopt in 2021.

There were calls for claimant-states in Asean to hold joint patrols and challenge China’s anti-access and area denial (A2AD) operations in the important waterway where about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne trade pass every year.

Harry Roque, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, had told journalists the government was considering the proposal for joint patrols suggested by a former Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio.

But he disagreed with Carpio’s assessment that China has been exploiting the pandemic to expand its influence in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.

The possibility of joint naval patrols in the South China Sea is a giant step toward multilateralism in the region as the claimant-states have a common interest to resist China’s intrusion into their overlapping exclusive economic zones.

The Philippines and Malaysia have been holding joint border exercises along their maritime borders and had done some trilateral exercises with Indonesia in the Sulu and Celebes Seas.

The Philippines and Vietnam have increased cooperation in the disputed sea, holding volleyball and soccer games in the occupied territories in the Spratlys and exchanging port calls.

All three have taken part in multilateral naval exercises under the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) mechanism as well as in the 2014 Western Pacific Navies Symposium.

But creating a military bloc in Asean similar to Europe’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is remote and unthinkable given the hesitation of some member-states to antagonize a northern neighbor.

Unlike Europe, Southeast Asian countries are very jealous of their sovereignty, given some unresolved border and territorial disputes, and there is so much distrust with each other despite growing interaction in Asean mechanisms.

Moreover, Southeast Asian nations are still reluctant to form a supranational defense alliance, which will cede control of their military resources to a unified and central command.

Asean also takes pride in its principle of non-interference and “Asean centrality,” resisting overtures from extra-regional powers, like the United States, to create a coalition to counter China’s influence under its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

But the truth is, China has succeeded in a divide-and-rule tactic on Asean through its soft power, pouring billions of aid and investments in countries like Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

When China began its island-building in the Spratlys, the Philippines, under the administration of President Benigno Aquino, sought cooperation with other claimant-states, but only Vietnam was willing to join forces.

Brunei and Malaysia under a China-friendly leadership showed little interest. Indonesia and Singapore were supportive.

Today, the equation has changed. Malaysia and Vietnam are stepping up cooperation and the Philippines, under a pro-China Duterte, has been reluctant, at times, to call out China.

Roque’s recent statement on China’s provocative action was a sellout and cowardly. It did not help that even Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana played down the BRP Conrado Yap incident in February.

Multilateralism will only work if member-states further integrate into single political, social and economic communities, aligning their national interests with the larger regional interests, tearing down national borders and increasing connectivity.

It means changing their mindset and starting to think that the 600 million people in the region belong to a common but diverse community, like Europe.

Asean must learn from the experience of Europe and take the best practices in other regional groupings like the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

There are already existing mechanisms within Asean to start building a more cohesive bloc and possibly a military alliance similar to NATO. The 10-member bloc has the Asean Regional Forum and the ADMM+, which could be a good start.

For an alliance to work and succeed, Asean must limit membership to countries in the region and respond to a common threat, like extremism, maritime security, and non-traditional military threats such as pandemics, disasters, and environmental issues including haze.

It must resist outside influence from the United States, China, Russia, Australia, India and even Western Europe.

Asean can keep its neutrality by keeping extra-regional powers from its own alliance. US and China are not the only powers tying to influence the region.

Europe, through NATO, has started to look into the East again in an effort to relive its glory days in the 17th to the early 20th century when Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and France had colonies in Asia.

Asean does not need European countries to interfere and expand influence into the region. NATO’s presence in Asean will only complicate the already tense situation amid the escalating rivalry between the US and China.

Asean should be left to Southeast Asians. It can become cohesive like the European Community in the coming years and create an alliance similar to NATO.

But it does not need NATO, the US, China and other extra-regional powers in a regional alliance.