ASEAN members seek India’s help on South China Sea disputes

Posted on December 21, 2012


Southeast Asian countries have urged India to intervene to help resolve bitter territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (in blue turban) and Asean leaders wave flags at their summit in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (in blue turban) and Asean leaders wave flags at their summit in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters

Asean called on India, which vowed to promote co-operation on trade and maritime security with the bloc, to take a more decisive stance in the region.

Individual countries in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations went further. Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Tan Dung asked for New Delhi’s direct intervention over South China Sea territorial disputes, while Myanmese President Thein Sein said India’s role was “crucial” to ensuring peace and stability in the region.

In a vision statement agreed at the summit, the two sides set their sights on a new “strategic partnership” that would bring closer political, security and economic co-operation.

Significantly, they underlined the need for freedom of navigation, a contentious issue because of competing claims with China over parts of the South China Sea, though there was no mention of China in their statement. The Philippines and Vietnam referred to tensions in their region, but India’s foreign minister sought to distance New Delhi from the wrangling over the South China Sea.

“There are fundamental issues there that do not require India’s intervention,” External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told a news conference, adding that issues of sovereignty “need to be resolved between the countries concerned”.

An Asean summit ended in acrimony last month over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, with its leaders failing to agree on a concluding joint statement.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters close to its neighbours’ shores which include major sea lanes and are believed to hold vast mineral and oil resources.

China’s claim is contested by the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, which have overlapping claims to some or all of the same areas.

“Doing something about it includes not doing something about it,” Khurshid said, adding that issues of sovereignty “need to be resolved between the countries concerned”.

“China knows it, India knows it – that there is too much to lose if we don’t overcome issues from time to time,” he said.

Last month, China announced a plan to board and search ships that illegally enter what it considers its territory in the South China Sea, prompting Asean’s secretary general to warn this could spark naval clashes.

“The need to maintain a high level of maritime security and freedom of navigation offers us … an opportunity for enhanced co-operation,” Philippine Vice- President Jejomar Binay said.

Although India has no territorial claim in the region, it is hungry for energy and is exploring for oil and gas with Vietnam in an area contested by China. In future, it is expected to ship liquefied natural gas from Russia through the Malacca Strait.

This month, India’s navy chief said he was ready to deploy vessels to the South China Sea to protect exploration interests.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the summit that closer maritime co-operation with India was needed because 70 per cent of the world’s traffic in petroleum products went via the Indian Ocean.

The New Delhi summit underscored India’s growing role in one of the world’s fastest-growing regions.

Twenty years after India launched a ‘Look East’ diplomatic push to promote trade with a neglected neighbouring region, the relationship is finally beginning to gain traction. Annual trade has nearly doubled in four years and India’s growing economic clout makes it appealing as a balance to other Asian powers. However, China’s trade relations and links with Asean are far deeper than India’s.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters

New Delhi – Southeast Asian leaders are expected to lay out a vision for closer cooperation with India on security and the economy at a high-level gathering in New Delhi at a time of tension with China in the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.

The meeting is a ceremonial summit to mark 20 years of cooperation with India and will not include detailed negotiations on regional issues, India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said.

But ministry officials said the leaders would also produce a statement which is expected to reiterate a commitment to freedom of navigation, a hot issue because of territorial conflicts in the South China Sea.

Some Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries contest claims by China in the waters, making it the biggest potential flashpoint in the region. The United States has called for calm, but some are also looking to India, the other regional heavyweight, to get involved.

“They want India to play a larger role. Those concerns are only increasing given the uncertain situation that is emerging,” said C. Raja Mohan, a strategic affairs expert at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank.

For India, improved relations with Southeast Asia will give it entry into one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the world and a source of raw materials needed for its own growth.

There are poor transport links between India and the nations to its southeast, and constraints like India’s tiny diplomatic corps – similar in size to New Zealand’s – mean India trails China in relations with the region.

Trade between India and the 10-member ASEAN was up to $80 billion last year compared with $47 billion in 2008. An agreement on free trade in services and investment could be signed at the New Delhi meeting.

But India’s role in the region is dwarfed by that of China, which enjoyed trade worth a record $363 billion with ASEAN countries in 2011 in an already established free trade area.

“What we need is far greater connectivity,” Khurshid said in an interview with Reuters, mentioning roads, railways and flights as areas needing work. He described a 10-year plan to double the number of diplomats to reflect India’s global ambitions.


The prime ministers of Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam, the presidents of Myanmar, Laos and Indonesia, and the vice president of the Philippines are scheduled to attend the summit along with the sultan of Brunei.

India walks a delicate line to balance its increasingly close partnership with Washington as President Barack Obama steps up the U.S. presence in Asian, and the reality of living next door to China, Asia’s fastest-growing superpower.

Khurshid played down the possibility of any tension with China and reiterated that India had no territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“I don’t think this is something that will reach hostility or conflict, there are differences obviously – China has a very clear perception about its sovereignty and it also has a very clear idea of how it wants to resolve these issues.

“It’s not something that cannot be resolved, it is certainly not something in which we are directly involved, we’ve said categorically that there should be compliance and respect for the law of the sea.”

But India’s “Look East” policy and a need to lock down energy supplies for its rapidly growing industrial sector are pushing it gradually to step up military activities in the region with more joint exercises and visits.

The meeting’s statement on ties will include elements of an expert report ASEAN adopted at a meeting in Cambodia in November, an Indian foreign ministry spokesman said.

The experts called on India and ASEAN to work together to ensure “evolving regional economic and security architectures will promote the goal of open regionalism”.

This month, India’s navy chief said his force was ready to deploy naval vessels to the South China Sea to protect its oil-exploration interests there if needed.

India is exploring oil and gas blocks with Vietnam in the disputed waters and in future is likely to bring more liquefied natural gas through the Malacca Straits.


Philippines Running Out of Options in South China Sea Disputes

MANILA — Earlier this year, the Philippines and China teetered on the brink of direct military confrontation over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, precipitating a series of high-stakes diplomatic exchanges that prevented open conflict but left the underlying dispute unresolved.

Although the episode jolted the Filipino leadership into recognizing the perils of armed brinkmanship with China, Manila’s subsequent diplomatic approach to the conflict has achieved little. After almost seven months of intensive diplomatic engagement with China and the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), regional maritime tensions are still on the rise. Now, facing a potentially more assertive China under a new leadership, and in the absence of an effective regional approach to the ongoing territorial disputes, the Philippines seems to be running out of diplomatic options.

The Philippines finds itself heavily outmatched in asserting its territorial claims against China over a number of disputed islands, outcroppings and other features in the South China Sea. Facing a rapidly advancing Chinese navy and lacking an independent minimum defense capability, Manila has sought greater commitments from Washington to both the principle of freedom of navigation in the western Pacific and U.S. obligations under mutual defense treaties with allied nations in the region, including the Philippines, especially in the event of a direct confrontation with China over the disputed South China Sea territories.

At the same time, the Philippines has also stepped up its diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve the maritime disputes and appease a resurgent Beijing. Manila is committed to maintaining its expansive economic and investment relations with China. To avoid a direct bilateral confrontation with his country’s giant neighbor, President Benigno Aquino’s government has attempted to build support for a multilateral legal approach to settling disputes, principally under the auspices of ASEAN.

The current standoff began in April, when Chinese paramilitary forces, backed by the implied threat of naval involvement, overwhelmed Filipino naval forces that were initially deployed to intercept Chinese boats engaged in illegal fishing in the Scarborough Shoal — an area well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Subsequently, despite an agreement for both sides to withdraw vessels to de-escalate the situation, China instead consolidated its physical control over the shoal, effectively shutting off all access to Filipino ships.

Outgunned and outmaneuvered, the Aquino administration had little choice but to respond with diplomatic measures. Its first resort was to moral suasion, pleading with the international community to pressure Beijing to respect the Philippines’ EEZ under the provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Manila also prepared its legal case for possible future arbitration, unilaterally changed the name of the South China Sea to the “West Philippine Sea” and hosted the first region-wide ASEAN Maritime Forum to rally support against Chinese assertiveness.

A major thrust of its diplomatic push focused on reconciling differences with China, while attempting to convince ASEAN — currently chaired by China’s top regional ally, Cambodia — to adopt a common front aimed at de-escalating tensions and peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea.

In June, the Aquino administration went so far as to effectively circumvent its own Department of Foreign Affairs when it sanctioned backchannel diplomatic efforts, led by a neophyte Filipino legislator with the support of Filipino-Chinese business leaders, to reach out to China. When the effort backfired and Chinese President Hu Jintao refused to meet Aquino on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in September, another special envoy, Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas, was sent to meet China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping.

Meanwhile, in July, Cambodia blocked the inclusion of South China Sea disputes in the final communiqué of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, provoking an ugly episode of Filipino-Cambodian diplomatic squabbling. In September, Aquino personally reached out to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, meeting him on the sidelines of a royal wedding in Brunei.

By October, the Aquino administration, conscious of the need to build a constructive atmosphere ahead of China’s sensitive leadership transition in November, pushed for high-level bilateral talks with Chinese representatives, under the so-called Foreign Ministry Consultations, to bridge outstanding differences.

However, the true test of these efforts came in mid-November at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia, held alongside the pan-regional ASEAN+3 and East Asia Summits, where Aquino was eager to arrive at some agreement with Cambodia and China over the fate of the territorial disputes — to no avail.

Cambodia blocked even the discussion of the disputes from the summits’ agendas, extinguishing any efforts at developing a legally binding regional code of conduct to peacefully resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea. In response, Aquino launched a formal protest, while prodding the major Pacific powers, particularly the U.S., India and Japan, to play a more decisive role in the disputes. He ominously warned summit participants, especially Cambodia and China, “The ASEAN route is not the only route for us.”

Subsequently, Beijing stepped up its maritime claims through a series of provocative measures, including issuing new maritime regulations in Hainan province on the movement of foreign vessels and unveiling a new passport design watermarked with a map representing the full extent of China’s territorial claims across Asia.

As a result of its failed diplomacy, an anxious Manila is being gradually forced to adopt a more hawkish posture, including a further revitalization of military-strategic ties with the U.S. and other sympathetic Pacific powers. However, the Aquino administration faces major obstacles to closer defense ties with the U.S., including constitutional restrictions on the establishment of any permanent U.S. military presence, fierce domestic political opposition to such a move. The strategic and economic importance of China to both the Philippines and the U.S. further constrains the two allies’ freedom of maneuver. So while diplomacy has yet to achieve major breakthroughs, it still might be Manila’s best option.

Richard Javad Heydarian