International security experts sounded the alarm over what they said was the lackluster future of an all-important code of conduct on the West Philippine Sea.
“Those negotiations, if they begin—and they haven’t—would still take years,” said Gregory Poling, Director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the sidelines of the Stratbase ADR Institute summit on “Asean Leadership amid a new world order” held recently in Makati.
“What I expect is that the disappointments that [are] going to be obvious after this year might finally kick Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nation] states into gear, make them realize that they need to think of a different venue to get this done.”
Experts had long identified a legal Code of Conduct as a critical mechanism in maintaining peace and security in the region in light of the rising incursions of China. “One of the most important actions is for the countries to exercise self-restraint and focus on peaceful means in resolving the disputes,” said Dindo Manhit, president of private think tank Stratbase ADRi.
A code of conduct, he added, could give governments the ease they need to work past their differences, especially in the context of Asean’s relationship with the rising global power.
Manhit proposed a brand of multilateralism that stands on international law to resolve misunderstandings and ultimately guarantee regional stability, something that the Philippines could have spearheaded following the international tribunal’s favorable decision regarding the West Philippine Sea in 2016.
Otherwise, the usual feeble
approach from Asean effectively ignores what many see as increasingly aggressive behavior by Beijing in the disputed waters, including the unabated militarization of islands.
“China has ignored the Hague decision,” said Masashi Nishihara, president, Research Institute for Peace and Security Tokyo. “Four airbases have been built on the islands, and it’s clear that its strategy is to prevent unity in the Asean.”
The regional bloc should, thus, continue its multilateral approach by forming a South China Sea Group and maintaining its closeness with the United States and its regional partners, including Japan and Australia.
Christopher Roberts, professor of international and political studies at the University of New South Wales, cited China’s energy insecurity, uneven development in the country and a “China dream” of regaining its status as the foremost Greater Asia power as the driving force behind its aggressiveness. In this light, Asean needs to serve as a central pillar among a multilevel and multitiered strategy to counter this rise, Roberts added.