South China Sea Clashes Are Fracturing ASEAN

China’s neighbors are losing their will to resist.

As The Hague’s arbitration ruling on the South China Sea territorial conflict—levied by the Philippines against China in 2013—is approaching, questions abound whether the United States and its allies can maintain peace amid rising tensions stemming from an increasingly assertive China. While the ruling may set a precedent in strictly legal terms, it will ultimately be nonbinding, with the tribunal lacking the power to enforce its decision. Beijing has not spared the rod in condemning the “unilateral” move by the Philippines, and has managed to coax some forty countries onto its side in an attempt to prevent the UN General Assembly from discussing the territorial disputes any further. Moreover, a number of ASEAN states with no territorial claims in the South China Sea have broken ranks and signed a statement agreeing not to let the dispute affect relations with China.

In any case, China has already preemptively rejected the outcome of the tribunal, arguing that the arbitration “is neither well-grounded nor justified” and that the decision “won’t affect China’s sovereignty over South China Sea islands, or whitewash the Philippines’ illegal occupation of China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea.” As J. Michael Cole has pointed out, this condemnation is based on “the historical narrative of ’national humiliation’ and the belief that as a product of Western imperialism, global institutions and the legal architecture of international law are little more than mechanisms to maintain a skewed distribution of power.” In effect, the court’s ruling against China is “evidence” that the West is attempting to keep China down. In the wake of the ruling against it, China is expected to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed area with the Philippines to protect its interests, as it did over the East China Sea in 2013. U.S. officials have expressed concern, stating that an ADIZ would prove provocative and destabilizing.

In that context, Vietnam is becoming a key player in the U.S.-led effort to prevent the South China Sea disputes from escalating. Owing to their strategic positions along Vietnam’s coast, Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang can play decisive roles in granting U.S. vessels better access to the South China Sea, where China seeks to protect its claim through land reclamations near the Spratly and Paracel islands. Vietnam could declare an ADIZ over the Paracels, but for this to be effective in deterring Beijing from establishing an ADIZ, Vietnam needs to be able to credibly signal its resolve.

In fact, enhanced cooperation between Vietnam and the United States in recent years might aid in achieving this signaling. Most importantly, however, it is testimony to the fact that the United States regards Vietnam as a pillar in its South China Sea policy. For example, the annual Naval Engagement Activity with the Vietnam People’s Navy, and the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense sending Vietnamese officers to U.S. staff colleges and other military institutions, have promoted cooperation and mutual trust between the former foes. Add the May 2016 lifting of its arms embargo against Vietnam, and all signs point towards a nascent U.S.-Vietnamese partnership.

But growing problems within ASEAN, leading to fracturing that could ultimately weaken the organization’s resolve and unity, may offset the benefits of enhanced collaboration between Vietnam and the United States. A glimpse of ASEAN’s weakening was provided on June 14, when ASEAN members officially expressed deep concern over escalating tensions in the South China Sea in a common statement issued at a special meeting in China, only to retract the statement shortly thereafter—probably due to Chinese pressure. A Malaysian foreign ministry spokeswoman stated simply that “we have to retract the media statement by the ASEAN foreign ministers . . . as there are urgent amendments to be made.”

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