Since the foundation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) fifty years ago, there has been greater integration among the member states. The continued cooperation among the member countries has helped to overcome several regional crisis and problems in unison. In the early days, the agreements were arrived at amicably and also disagreements did not cause enmity among the members. The earlier founders of ASEAN embraced the culture of solving things in an informal atmosphere that was characterized by friendship, and sense of hope and optimism (Acharya, 1991, p. 162). The impressive relation between the ASEAN member states led to the establishment ASEAN Security Community in 2003 that was later changed to ASEAN Political-Security Community with the aim of enhancing multilateral defense cooperation (Albek, 2015, p. 3). However, the current South China Sea dispute appears to threaten the defense cooperation that has existed among the ASEAN member states over a decade. The regional crisis has forced ASEAN member states to focus on realizing their national peace more than the achievement of the regional peace (Nguyen, 2015, p. 16). For example, it has become very hard for the diplomats from the member countries to agree on the way forward on the South China Sea dispute. This paper refers to this crisis to formulate advice to the ASIEN member states on how to deal with the South China Sea dispute to restore the threatened regional defense cooperation.
This report finds that serious issues arising from the South China Sea dispute have threatened ASEAN unity and defense cooperation. For example, the regional insecurity and arms race competition has become intense. China has engaged in the deployment of the military in the disputed territory against the spirit of ASEAN Political-Security Community. Besides, the Chinese neighbors’ who claim the ownership right of the sea have continued to increase their military budget and also sought military cooperation from external countries such as the USA (Tong, 2016). The approaches by the different ASEAN member states threatens the security of the region. This report recommends that cooperation and development will help to overcome the increased regional insecurity and arms race competition being perpetuated by the individual ASEAN member states at the expense of its defense cooperation.
The report also finds that the South China Sea dispute has caused a threat to the environment and civilians and increased ASEAN individual member states economic interests. These consequences have continued to weaken the ASEAN defense cooperation further. In the efforts to secure South China Sea, the claimants of the territory, for example, China has established an artificial island in the sea. With the combination of the military tools in the sea, the natural environment is being threatened. Additionally, the ASIEN member states have encouraged their fishermen to carry out their fishing activities consistently to prove the individual state ownership over the territory. Moreover, the economic interests of the individual member states on the sea have become a major stumbling block to end the dispute (Tong, 2016). To solve this dispute, this report advocates for comprehensive consultations and redefined consensus in arriving at the association decision. However, this may not work effectively for the South China Sea dispute, and therefore, this paper calls for establishment of the code of conduct whereby the majority decision will be abiding by all ASEAN member states.
The current disputes over the South China Sea territory originate from both maritime and island claims among individual’s member states of ASEAN in the region (Sathirathai, 2015). Ideally, this is because of the benefits associated with the waters and other features such as banks, reefs, and islands in the region. The members of the ASEAN that are claiming the ownership of the South China Sea want to be given fishing rights, exploitation of the potential crude oil in the seabed, exploration and even a control of the major shipping lanes (Mirski, 2015). The lack of agreement on the issues mentioned above has almost claimed the union and integration of ASEAN as well as its defense cooperation that was formed with the goal of preventing external attacks. According to the analysts, the disputes over the South China Sea territory are the potential sources of disagreements in the broader region (Limaye, 2015). The dispute over this territory seems to have been heightened by the stance stand taken by the ASEAN member countries. This paper highlights some of the consequences that have risen from the South China Sea crisis and if not checked they may result to the disintegration of ASEAN defense cooperation. This view is in support of Nguyen (2015) who noted that if the actions by the member states are not curtailed, they may disintegrate the ASEAN defense cooperation.
Increased Regional Insecurity and Arms Race
The current and the worse threat is the militarization among the individual member states as the result of the South China Sea disputes. China leads in the arms race war. For example, in early 2016 without the consultation of other ASEAN members, China deployed military weapons on Woody Island (Tong, 2016). This came as a shock to members of ASIEN because the consultations on dispute were in progress and China did so without informing them. Besides, China has gone ahead to threaten that it will deploy more weaponry including Air Defense Identification Zone to control the movement of crafts "over her claimed territory." China claims that it owns 90 percent of the Sea, the claims that were termed as illegitimate by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague (Tong, 2016). After the court ruling, the Chinese became more defiant and deployed more military tools in the region. China is acting unilaterally without considering the positions of other members in the ASEAN as well undermining the role of the ASEAN Political-Security Community (Held, 2016).
The Chinese act distressed and disappointment her neighbors in the ASEAN as well the United States. To respond to the China’s action, some member states of ASEAN such as Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and Japan with the involvement of the United States formed joint military patrols on the arguments that they were exercising freedom of “navigation exercise” (Tong, 2016). The actions by the Chinese neighbors confirm that the ASEAN defense cooperation role is no longer observed. The fiasco among the ASEAN members did not end here because the individual members states that claimed the ownership of the sea have gone ahead to upgrade their military. For example, Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan have increased their military cooperation and also sought military cooperation from the United States (Tong, 2016).
The China Sea dispute has brought disunity among the ASIEN member states resulting to the arms race and therefore, threatening the peace in the region. Despite the earlier regional integration cooperation on the critical crisis facing the region, this one has become unsolvable to the point of destroying the unity and cooperation that have existed over the years among the members of ASEAN (Albek, 2015, p. 16). Now, the crucial question remains, what should the best strategies of curbing the current increasing arms race and increased insecurity in the region. This paper offers several recommendations that ASIEN members should put in place and ensure they are adhered to by each member state to avoid the increasing insecurity in the region. Based on the above issues raised in above two paragraphs, nationalism among the members have largely contributed to the insecurity and arms race competition in the region. This paper perceives that having strong cooperation and association will help to overcome these problems.
As noted above the major factors that have contributed to the worsening of the South China Sea dispute and threatened the ASIEAN defense cooperation are economic and distrust among the member countries. The ASEAN should consider building its association on cooperation and development. To establish and maintain a strong cooperation and development, the ASEAN should look to the European Union (EU). The European Union might not be the perfect association, but its standards in the promotion of the liberal democracy bring it into the limelight in the global arena (Albek, 2015). However, for the cooperation and development in the ASIEN to thrive, the member states should go through reforms as it was the case in the European Union nations. The EU nations have undergone through many reforms that influence them to conform to the set EU standards hence reducing the economic orientations and political languages gaps that may exist among the member states (Tong, 2016). From the observation of the European Union operations and activities, it is clear that the members can reach consensus with ease than the ASEAN members. Therefore, ASEAN should focus on setting standards that all the members should conform to. However, for this suggestion to work, the individual member states should be undertaken through reforms.
Threats to Environment, Civilians and Economic Activities
The South China Sea dispute also has had severe impacts on the environment, civilians and the economic activities in the region, hence, weakening the ASEAN defense cooperation further. The continued dispute over the region has forced China to construct artificial islands on the sea illegally. This has caused a lot of damage to the natural environment. Besides, the China has gone ahead to bring an idea of establishing nuclear power station on these artificial islands. This further puts the natural environment in the region into more threats. The communities in the region expects that the ASEAN will prevent these environmental threats through its Political-Security Community. However, the crisis on the sea has hampered the ASEAN from protecting the environment in the region based on the Code of Conduct in the South China. The due Chinese influence on this dispute appears to render the response of ASEAN in the region meaningless.
The dispute in the region has further continued to threaten the peace and the lives of the civilians. The individual member states claiming to have right to own the South China Sea, encourages fishers from their countries to persistently conduct fishing in the disputed region. According to Tong (2016) the individual members usually act in such a manner to assert their claim to the disputed territory at the national level. Even though the strategy being used by the claimants is good to prove the ownership of the territory, it has continued to put the lives of the citizens in danger. For example, in the last four years, there have been deadly clashes between Chinese naval boats and the Vietnamese fishing boats. Additionally, it has been confirmed that the Chinese naval vessels intentionally attacks and sinks the Vietnamese fishing boats (Limaye, 2015). Malaysia has also raised a concern about the Chinese illegal sea activities at its territory. The military might being portrayed by several ASEAN signatories undermines the responsibility of Political-Security Community over the region.
Economic interests have been another critical issues disrupting the association, cooperation and unity of ASEAN. It is important to highlight that the South China Sea is a vital trade route in the region. The findings reveal that the South China Sea trade route transacts over $5 trillion in a year (Tong, 2016). The lucrative economic benefits associated with this territory has made the claimants to marshal their efforts harder to have an ownership at the national level. The protection of the economic interests in the region is not a responsibility of the individual states but rather a collective responsibility of the ASEAN on behalf of the member states through meaningful political measures and peaceful negotiations (Tong, 2016). However, this it would be difficult to work because member countries put their national interests first and do not trust one another. Therefore, it would be difficult to convene a meeting or conference where the ASEAN can agree on how to deal with raising economic interests in the region which if not addressed may disrupt the defense cooperation of the ASEAN member states. This paper opines that the recommendations offered below will help to resolve the rising issues discussed above as well help ASEAN Political-Security Community regain its responsibility in the region.
As noted earlier in this paper, the earlier founders of ASEAN resolved their disagreements peacefully through consultations and consensus. Even where and when the founders did not agree they still maintained a united association (Acharya, 1992, p. 8). However, the South China Sea dispute has made the founders' approach to settling the regional crisis a nightmare for the member countries. This paper calls the ASEAN to go back to the drawing board and try as much as possible inculcate to the culture of consultation and consensus in the association. This would be the best way to mitigate or get rid of the continued crisis of the South China Sea.
This paper views that, a decision-making process based on consultations and consensus will offer solutions to the disgruntled member states in the association and encourage the upholding of the ASEAN Political-Security Community responsibility over the region. This is because every state will feel represented and its opinion respected. However, with only consultations and consensus as the tools of settling it may be difficult to resolve the crisis on the South China Sea. This because it would be difficult to use either consensus or consultation to reach the joint agreement about the current crisis bearing in mind that China claims to own 90 percent of the sea and may always object the joint agreement (Tong, 2016). Therefore, it is important for the ASEAN to supplement consultation and consensus with the code of conduct that will aid the decision-making process. The code of conduct can suggest that the decision by the majority will be relied upon when reaching the decision. Through this approach, it will be easier for the ASEAN to resolve the South China Sea dispute and regain its defense cooperation.
The South China Sea dispute is the real challenge facing the ASEAN that has threatened its defense cooperation, Political-Security Community. It has been proved that the association has lacked the right strategies on how to puzzle the challenge facing the region. Instead, each region seems to put its national interests first. These are actions if not checked may crumble the association and the cooperation that has been existing within the ASEAN member states since 1967. Therefore, it is a challenge for the ASEAN to look at the more appropriate ways on to deal with the South China Sea dispute menace. It is the right time for ASEAN to regain its reputable image and gain recognition as the association that can solve its regional crisis as it is the case in the European Union.
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