It will apparently take more than two to tango to resolve East Sea issues, as observers urge ASEAN to engage economic powers in dispute settlement.
They have further highlighted the lack of unity and solidarity within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on issues concerning the East Sea, leading to the low bargaining power of ASEAN against major countries like China.
“With the potential to undermine regional security, the East Sea is not of the interest of the claimants only,” the Habibie Center’s Institute for Democracy and Human Rights chairwoman Dewi Fortuna Anwar said Tuesday in her inaugural address to a seminar on prospects of cooperation and convergence of the issues and dynamics in the East Sea.
Dewi, who is also a special adviser on politics and foreign relations to the vice president, further noted that with Thai and Cambodian troops involved in border skirmishes, “it shows that territorial disputes — if not managed well — can cause open conflicts between neighbors”.
The seminar was jointly organized by the Habibie Center, an Indonesian research center, and think tank CASS India.
China, the four ASEAN countries — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — and Taiwan have laid overlapping claims to the Spratly and Paracel islands in the East Sea, often causing a standoff between the Asian giant and the four ASEAN members.
It is estimated that oil and natural gas reserves in the Spratly region could potentially amount to 17.7 billion tons, making it the world’s fourth-largest reserve bed.
With national interests occupying the four ASEAN claimants, the regional grouping is becoming increasingly divided and is showing an inability for “unity and solidarity”, said Baladas Ghoshal, a Southeast Asian scholar from New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
“There is no one, single ASEAN approach to the South China Sea. There is no unity when it comes to the South China Sea … every country has its own policy,” he said.
He said a divided ASEAN was also evident, for example, in the Thai-Cambodia border conflict, where even while ASEAN was having a summit in early May, there was an exchange of fire between the two countries.
“The exchange [of barbs] between [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen and [Thai Prime Minister] Abhisit [Vejajiva] was also not civil in the meeting,” said Ghoshal.
He said the centrality of ASEAN was important for grouping in withstanding an increasingly assertive China.
Ghoshal further emphasized the importance for ASEAN to engage other partners such as India, the United States, Japan and Australia in resolving disputes related to the East Sea.
“The time has come when ASEAN should think of its own interest rather than what China might feel about its action because individually ASEAN cannot stand [alone] against China,” said Ghoshal.
“What we are able to do is to engage countries like India, the US and Japan. They can engage with these countries and send a signal to China that you can’t do anything to ASEAN,” he said.
Former Indonesian defense minister Juwono Sudarsono, also present at the seminar, remarked that the role of India and Japan in the East Sea “remains to come”.
“[In regard to East Sea issues] Japan and India want to play a global civilization role accepted by all other countries, including Western countries — especially the US,” he said.
University of Indonesia international trade observer Mahmud Syaltout said ASEAN was divided in the East Sea disputes because individual members had different levels of salience (the prominence of having trade with one another), symmetry, interdependence and regional means on their dyadic relationship with China.
Based on each country’s level, it was better for Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines to resolve the territorial dispute at the regional level with other ASEAN members than pursue it at the bilateral level, he said.