South China Sea: is an ASEAN united front desirable?

Author: Xunpeng Shi, ERIA

With the ongoing turmoil in the South China Sea, discussions about an ASEAN united front, or an aggressive alliance, have gained more currency, stimulating a debate on how this position might affect ASEAN.

Some analysts propose a united front, while others propose a collective bargain between ASEAN and China that excludes powers from outside the region. While this latter approach does not explicitly propose a united front, it does imply that ASEAN would gain strategic and political force against China. But the question is whether ASEAN would gain by pinning China as its opponent. The answer is unlikely to be positive. ASEAN should be a fair, neutral and transparent facilitator of peace, rather than an aggressive opponent against China, when it comes to resolving the South China Sea dispute.

A united front may provide short-lived, small-scale benefits to those ASEAN member states involved in the dispute, but it would be detrimental to ASEAN as a whole. Even if a united front was successful and China did not retaliate, would ASEAN really benefit? The answer is likely, no. The ASEAN member states engaged in the dispute may obtain more bargaining power and other political gains, but they may not get much more than this because China is unlikely to be able to succumb to ASEAN’s pressure. In fact, China has little room for further compromise beyond its current policy of ‘setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development’, unless it can manage angry public opinion inside China.

This strategy would leave little to be gained for ASEAN as a whole, as the dispute will continue while the region’s peace and prosperity will be at stake. And if ASEAN unconditionally supports its members, more of these states may take advantage of ASEAN in other disputes, making its foreign policy more volatile and aggressive. ASEAN has to be particularly cautious about being trapped by the economic and military consequences brought about by the actions of individual member states.

Realistically, China would likely respond both politically and economically, and bring about further losses for ASEAN. So far, China has been very supportive of ASEAN in resolving regional issues, including the South China Sea dispute. But China may not maintain its current policy toward ASEAN if the latter were to become China’s opponent. The question then becomes: what might happen then?

First, China would be unlikely to maintain an ASEAN-integrated policy and respect ASEAN’s role in resolving regional issues. ASEAN’s influence on China would diminish and Beijing’s economic and political support for the organisation would weaken.

Second, ASEAN may lose its centrality in promoting regional integration and its role in the region may be marginalised. On the basis of geographic location and economic production networks, China is becoming the focal point of East Asian regional integration. ASEAN’s centrality did not happen by chance and needs to be maintained through great political determination, meaning China’s retreat would be a blow for ASEAN’s position in the region.

Finally, an ASEAN united front may push China to pursue a subregional, China-centred regional integration roadmap, which would dwarf — it not completely undermine — the ASEAN path toward regional integration. From China’s perspective, a Greater Mekong subregional integration plan is more realistic than any other proposed roadmaps, such as ASEAN plus China, ASEAN+3 and the East Asia Summit. The Greater Mekong Subregion is geographically — and now economically — connected. And politically, there is much less conflict between these countries and China (except for the case of Vietnam) than is the case between China and countries outside the sub-region. Further integration of the Greater Mekong Subregion could move faster than ASEAN’s regional integration, which by then may not be relevant to some, if not all, of its member states.

An ASEAN united front would likely create more losses than gains for some ASEAN member states as well. Indonesia would be the biggest loser, as it would be deprived of its leadership among the emerging regional economies. Even among the four countries that have ongoing disputes with China — the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam — the benefits, if any, would be different for each country. For Brunei and Malaysia, in particular, additional benefits from a united front would be minimal, as it has little chance of gaining more than it already has now.

ASEAN should be a neutral, transparent and fair platform for both sides to resolve disputes peacefully, and should not take a biased stand toward its member states. By promoting this first platform, ASEAN has the potential to gain credit from both member states and the international community, and increase its profile in the international arena for its ability to tackle regional affairs. A transparent, neutral and fair ASEAN is certainly in the best interests of China, ASEAN member states and the region.

Xunpeng Shi is an Energy Economist at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.