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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A rules-based regional order

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It could have been an auspicious opportunity for the Philippines. A year after it got a favorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague regarding its claims in the South China Sea, it assumed chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations. The role—and all the power and influence that came with it—could have been instrumental in sending a strong message to Beijing about the centrality of Asean as a political force in the region.

Instead, the Duterte administration had all but surrendered the country’s extant claims in the disputed waters. Soon enough, surveillance photos showing two Xian Y-7 Chinese military transport planes on Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) recently surfaced, a development that alarmed experts as it was the first time a military aircraft landed within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

It was only the beginning, many feared, and could set a dangerous precedent vis-à-vis Chinese armed presence in the area. Not too long ago, a civilian aircraft landed on Panganiban Reef a day after the Hague ruling, a brazen, almost hostile act that emphasized Beijing’s adamant refusal to acknowledge both the case and the ruling.

And with the Philippines unable to consolidate its legal victory, the implied surrender also compromised Asean’s capacity to deal with China from a position of strength and unity.

This is the complex situation that welcomes Singapore’s chairmanship of the regional bloc this year. Already, many are predicting a stark contrast between President Duterte’s “non-interference” stance and what the prosperous city-state might set out to do. Worse, for the smaller states of Southeast Asia, the specter of competing interests between Washington and Beijing has created an air of uncertainty the region hasn’t seen since the Cold War.

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Foremost in this regard are reclaiming and reasserting Asean’s centrality in shaping regional affairs, cultivating coherence and unity among member states, and fostering an open and stable regional security environment.

An unfinished task in this regard is the long overdue Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Because the Asean chairman has at his or her disposal mechanisms that can shape Asean’s annual policy agenda for the region and beyond—the Chairman’s Statement, for one—Singapore has the opportunity to put this at front and center. As the country is also the Asean-China country coordinator, it can leverage this additional role to manage the volatile relationship.

For his part, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has made it clear that his country will fundamentally advocate a rules-based regional order, which has clear implications on China’s militarization of the South China Sea, including its revanchist challenge to freedom of navigation and flight in the disputed waters.

This push for a rules-based order and a legally binding Code of Conduct should invoke the landmark 2016 arbitration award, as all hinge on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The case, because of its broad implications beyond the claimant states, can thus serve as a reference point for the management and resolution of future disputes, including existing proposals on resource-sharing.

The ruling and the regional stability that it could enforce can also pave the way for economic prosperity. The disputed region, after all, is an important sea lane for global trade.

In particular, it will likely steer the Asean toward greater support for even freer regional trading regimes, whether through the proposed Transpacific Partnership Agreement 11, of which Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam are prospective members, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which counts 16 regional economies in the Asia-Pacific as members.

The alternative—if Singapore or Asean fails to act, or to act quickly enough—could be dire. “If [China] could land transports now, in the future they might want to land more provocative and destabilizing types of assets such as fighter jets and bombers,” warns Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Maritime Security Program.

Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea said the presence of the planes merely confirms that Beijing had been operating in the area. “This means they’re going there both by air and sea,” he says, adding that the presence of fighter jets or bombers could signal an expansion up until their operation “becomes permanent.”

Are warplanes next, then? From all indications, it is only a matter of time. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the country might file a diplomatic protest over the reported sighting, but there is little muscle in the pronouncement, and it is noncommittal at best.

Clearly, then, in the context of this undeniable threat, the need for Singapore and Asean to act decisively, and sooner rather than later, is now beyond question.

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