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2019-04-08  |  BY Liu Lin

ASEAN Member States: Cooperation and Hedging

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In 2018, the ASEAN and its member states remain stable factors regarding the South China Sea issue in general. The Philippines continued the policy to shelve the dispute and signed the Philippines-China Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Oil and Gas Development; no major changes were perceived in the South China Sea policies of other claimants, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, etc. In spite of this, the territorial and maritime delimitation disputes between China and other claimant countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, have not been eliminated and cannot be settled in the short run. Different views were held domestically on the solution to the South China Sea disputes with China. The nationalist sentiments of the public were also an issue that must be considered at the top level. External powers, unwilling to accept the détente between China and ASEAN countries, stepped up their efforts in cajoling and supporting countries like the Philippines and Vietnam to take the lead in making troubles, thus paving the way for their intervention. Against such backdrop, the South China Sea policies of ASEAN countries are still subject to various limitations and factors, and can be highly variable.

The Philippines continued its cooperative policy on the South China Sea issue but was restricted by many factors. In general, the Philippines maintained favorable cooperation with China concerning the South China Sea issue, yet there is obvious divergence between president Duterte and the opposition party and the military with respect to the issue.

In 2018, the Philippines actively advanced its maritime cooperation with China, and continued to discuss the cooperation through Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea (BCM) under which the second and third meetings were held in February in Manila and October in Beijing respectively. In the second meeting, both sides reached consensus on initiating technical working groups in fisheries, oil and gas, marine scientific research and marine environmental protection, and political security under the BCM framework. In the third meeting, both sides exchanged their views on paths to enhance maritime cooperation in areas such as recent developments in the South China Sea carrying political and security implications, maritime search and rescue, maritime safety, marine environmental protection/marine scientific research, and fisheries in relevant Working Group meetings under the framework of the BCM.

The second meeting of the Joint Coast Guard Committee on Maritime Cooperation (JCGC) launched by China and the Philippines was held in October 2018 in Guangzhou. Both sides expressed their willingness to deepen cooperation by conducting port visits, joint maneuvers, personnel exchange and training, and hotline mechanism.  The hotline has been established between the coast guards of two nations, and a maritime and air liaison mechanism is being discussed to effectively avoid misunderstanding and misperception and prevent accidents at sea and air.

Significant progress has been made in China-Philippines cooperation in South China Sea oil and gas exploration and development. In November 2018, the two countries signed the Philippines-China Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Oil and Gas Development during President Xi’s visit to the Philippines. According to what was released by the Philippines on November 26th, the MOU set out the basic principles and working mechanism of oil and gas development.  Both sides decided to step up negotiation on the relevant arrangements in accordance with international law, in order to facilitate oil and gas exploration and development. The two governments decided to establish an Inter-Governmental Joint Steering Committee and Inter-Entrepreneurial Working Group. The Inter-Governmental Joint Steering Committee would be co-chaired by the Foreign Ministers, and joined by the Energy Ministers, and would be responsible for negotiating and reaching consensus on the cooperation arrangements and the maritime area to which they will apply. Meanwhile, the Philippines would authorize relevant enterprise(s) and China would authorize China National Offshore Oil Corporation for negotiation and consultation. The two governments would endeavor to agree on the cooperation arrangements within twelve months.

The Philippines’ South China Sea policies and Sino-Philippine relations, however, are still fettered by many factors. First of all, there is great controversy over the South China Sea issue within the Philippines. Due to the chronic US influence, many politicians and military forces advocate maintaining and strengthening the US-Philippine alliance, seeking support from the US and taking on a hard line on the South China Sea issue. They are thus discontent with Duterte’s way of dealing with the issue, and accuse Duterte of being weak and compromising the Philippines’ interests. 

Secondly, Duterte himself has, from time to time, declared that he would defend the Philippines interests in the South China Sea, with due consideration of balancing different political forces and winning the support from the military. In August 2018, Duterte made a tough talk after China warned the Philippines for its air patrol above the South China Sea, saying that China has no right to expel foreign aircrafts flying above the man-made islands in the South China Sea and should “temper” its behavior.  The Philippine midterm elections will be conducted in 2019, and the Draft Constitution for a Federal Republic of the Philippines passed in July 2018 is also likely to be submitted to a national referendum. The Constitution amendment includes sensitive issues, such as a shift to a federal system of government and more local autonomy, which is why the draft is still fairly controversial in the Philippines. Duterte’s South China Sea policies might be confronted with more restrictions facing so many uncertainties concerning the domestic politics of the Philippines. 

Thirdly, the nationalist sentiments are still on the rise in the Philippines. According to the polls in August 2018, nearly 90% of the Philippine adults believed that the Philippine government should take actions against China’s “militarization” and retake control of Chinese-occupied islands in the South China Sea.  

Fourthly, the Philippines continues the construction on the claimed islands and reefs and land reclamation project, which means that the China-Philippines conflicts over the sovereignty for the islands and reefs and maritime boundaries could escalate from time to time. Currently, Delfin Lorenzana, Secretary of National Defense of the Philippines, said that it has started constructing a runway and upgrading other facilities on Thitu Island and urged “other countries to respect Philippines’ sovereignty”.  

Fifthly, China and the Philippines also have disputes over sovereignty and jurisdiction concerning joint development in the South China Sea. Due to the skeptic views of the pro-US power, unsettled details as well as the restrictions stipulated in the Philippine Constitution about joint development and the distribution ratio, it is yet unclear whether the MOU can lead to the joint exploration or joint development. 

Sixthly, the US is likely to exert pressure on the Philippines. The US is actively advancing its Indo-Pacific Strategy, with South China Sea being its major concern. Therefore, the US is particularly courting the claimants like the Philippines and Vietnam. At the same time, the Philippines will serve as the coordinator of China-ASEAN relations in the next three years, and thus possessing significant impact on the negotiations between China and ASEAN over the South China Sea issue. The US might exert direct or indirect pressure on the Philippines on the issues like joint development or the COC negotiation.

Vietnam grew to be the biggest uncertainty among all the claimants. Vietnam basically maintained its previous policies on the South China Sea: on the one hand, it kept the stability of the South China Sea through mutual high-level visits and current cooperative mechanisms with China, and the leadership of both sides especially stated that the two countries should strictly adhere to the consensus made by the two parties and governments and the Agreement on the Basic Principles Guiding the resolution of Maritime Issues, and manage and control the disputes without any activity that might complicate the situation, so as to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea. On the other hand, Vietnam was strengthening its maritime strategic layout through all kinds of measures, insisted that COC should be binding, and continued to internationalize the disputes over the South China Sea by reinforcing defense exchanges with the US, Japan, France, etc. 

To begin with, the new Vietnam maritime strategy was adopted. In October 2018, at the 8th meeting of the 12th Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the Resolution 36/NQ-TW on “Strategy for the sustainable development of Vietnam's marine economy until 2030, with a vision until 2045” was issued. The Resolution emphasized that Vietnam should enhance its ties with other countries, especially major maritime powers, on the basis of mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality and mutual benefits. And Vietnam should stay firm on its position in the disputes to maintain its sovereignty over the islands and protect its legal rights, and also actively seek for peaceful settlement of the conflicts in accordance with the international law, in order to preserve the environment of peace, stability and cooperation that are conducive to development.  

Secondly, it continued to advance the construction on the claimed islands and reefs and land reclamation project. In recent years, Vietnam has been continuously conducting land reclamation project and infrastructure upgrade in some of Nansha Islands. It was reported at the end of 2017 that there were new facilities on the West Reef, including dry docks.  It was also revealed by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), that since 2014, Vietnam has completed 120 acres (or approximately 486,000 km2) of land reclamation, expanded the runways and built additional radars to facilitate its patrols on ten islands and reefs of the South China Sea. So far Vietnam has completed land reclamation on 27 South China Sea islands or reefs, outnumbering any other claimants.  In fact, these actions are an continuation of Vietnam’s long-term policies in the South China Sea. For a long time, Vietnam has been investing a large number of resources in the construction on the occupied islands or reefs, aiming to fortify its occupation and administration. Furthermore, Vietnam attempted to grab the opportunity to create a favorable environment for strengthening its island defense before the COC negotiations come to an end.

Thirdly, Vietnam has strengthened maritime and defense cooperation with the US, Japan, Australia, France, etc. To keep the disputes over the South China Sea as an international issue and to tug the attention of extraregional countries, who has always opposed the construction on the islands and reefs and wanted to keep a balance in the region, Vietnam has invited the intervention of major powers in the South China Sea issue through defense and security cooperation with these countries. In addition, it was reported that in COC negotiations, Vietnam proposed more prohibitive provisions than any other country, some of which directly touched upon the disputes over territory and jurisdiction and are even clearly targeted on China. 

Malaysia generally continued existing policies on the South China Sea issue. Malaysia saw a political transition in May 2018, when the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir bin Mohamad, who led the “Alliance of Hope” (“Pakatan Harapan” in Malaysian) to defeat United Malays National Organization (UMNO), retook his position as the Prime Minister. Despite his efforts in pushing for the Sino-Malaysia friendship during his last premiership, after he took office, Mahathir announced that a series of agreements reached by China and his predecessor would be reexamined, provoking concerns about Sino-Malaysia relations for the observers. It is also a major concern regarding how he would deal with the South China Sea issue. At present, although his views on China have changed and he has demonstrated more caution and concern about the possible impact of China’s rise, Mahathir still takes stabilizing Sino-Malaysia relations as a significant consideration on the whole. Malaysia’s basic policies on the South China Sea issue remained largely unchanged. During Mahathir’s visit to China in August 2018, the two countries issued a joint declaration, which stressed the importance of maintaining the peace, security and stability of the South China Sea, and that all the directly concerned claimants should resolve the disputes peacefully through friendly consultations and negotiations in accordance with the international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982). Both sides agreed that all parties should exercise self-restraint, and to avoid actions that would complicate or escalate tensions in the South China Sea. Both sides, together with the ASEAN Member States, will work for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and encourage maritime cooperation, as well as actively push forward consultations on a Code of Conduct (COC) to see early conclusion of an effective COC. 

However, Mahathir has also given his views on the South China Sea disputes on several occasions. In June 2018, he said during an interview that Malaysia’s presence in the South China Sea would be maintained and that the country would retain its sovereign claim over islands or reefs in the South China Sea. He also observed at a weekly cabinet meeting that he “would prefer that if there were no warships in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca”. Later that year, in October, he reiterated the position by saying, “What Malaysia insists is that all the battleships and warships are expelled from the South China Sea as tensions in the region will escalate into armed conflict or even wars if vessels are stationed in the area” . It can be inferred from his statement that: first, Malaysia will not back down on its sovereign claim, but will continue to consolidate its control over the islands and reefs it has occupied in the South China Sea; second, it hopes the South China Sea will be free of any warship, which could be interpreted as his unwillingness to see the warships of the US or of any other country outside the region in the SCS. It also implies the country’s caution against China’s military operations in the SCS. As a matter of fact, Mahathir’s statement is in line with Malaysia’s policy trends in recent years. The country continues to keep a relatively low profile, yet it has become more outspoken about its discontent with China’s increasing maritime law enforcement in the southern part of South China Sea. Malaysia also did some little moves in the North and South Luconia Shoals, while apparently strengthening defense cooperation with the US and Japan. When Mahathir paid a visit to Japan in June 2018, the two countries agreed to keep the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea free for navigation for all countries.  

The maritime force build-up of ASEAN claimants should be watched closely. Vietnam upholds the military strategy of “active defense” and the strategic guideline of “shrinking land defense and expanding the frontline to the sea” for a long period of time. Nonetheless, it has been adding new contents to this strategy in recent years. In the new national defense strategy released in 2018, Vietnam proposed the “gradual modernization” of its national defense. It assumes that with the great development after the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the use of high-tech weapons by the rivals at war render “gradual modernization” not only necessary but also imperative. Besides, the document emphasizes the combination of internal and external forces. As Vietnam is increasingly integrated into the international community, it has become ever more important to promote widespread bilateral and multilateral international cooperation with defense partners and to gain support from external powers.  With regard to military strategy, as submarines became part of its maritime capabilities, Vietnam has begun to probe into the approaches to achieving Sea-Denial or counter-intervention strategies through submarines and undersea warfare.  It was noted by Vietnam that sea-denial focuses on denying the use of the sea by opponents or “merchant traffic engaged in war-sustaining trade” when Vietnam’s forces are unable to establish sea and air control. It is a defensive and passive strategy adopted by weaker and smaller forces in face of stronger foes. For the smooth execution of the strategy, each branch of the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) must be able to cooperate with the others. For instance, to conduct an anti-submarine mission, surface warships and naval aviation need to coordinate and act jointly with the submarines. More investment is required to improve command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

The Philippines embarked on the second phase of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Act (2018-2022) in 2018. The first horizon (2013-2017), involved purchases of military hardware mainly for internal security challenges. The second horizon will shift the arms acquisitions away from internal security to territorial defense. This will require an allocation of 300 billion pesos (about $5.6 billion) within five years. Arms acquisitions include the following items: towed and self-propelled howitzers, multiple launch rocket systems, ground mobility vehicles and light tanks for its army. The navy will procure two guided-missile frigates (which were bought from South Korea and will be delivered before 2020), amphibious assault vehicles, anti-submarine helicopters, multi-role vessels, and submarines.  The air force will purchase two squadrons of multi-role fighters and 12 more FA-50 lead-in fighter planes from South Korea. 

Malaysia’s RMN Fleet Transformation Program—known as the “15-to-5 Transformation Program”—announced in November 2018 is an important development guideline of Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) in the next 30 years. It seeks to deliver a reliable force structure that will help the navy meet the broad range of diverse maritime challenges to safeguard the sovereignty and maritime interests of the country before 2030. The Program aims for reducing its fleets of 15 classes of vessels to five. By 2050, the five new classes in the modernized RMN fleet will include 12 littoral combat ships (LCS); four submarines (SSK); three multi-role support ships (MRSS); 18 littoral mission ships (LMS); and 18 new patrol vessels (PV). 

Indonesia continues to build up its military deployment on Natuna Islands. In December 2018, Commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto inaugurated a new base in Natuna Islands. He noted in a statement that the outpost was meant to deter any potential security threats, particularly border threats. The base will host an Army battalion, and a Marine company, an engineering company and an artillery company as well as a hangar of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadron and surface-to-air missile systems, among other military installations.

The ASEAN and ASEAN non-claimants’ positions on the South China Sea issue are positive and prudent in general. Singapore held the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018 and handed it over to Thailand in 2019, both of which are ASEAN non-claimants of the South China Sea disputes, but exert significant influence on negotiations of COC and relevant cooperation. In 2018, Singapore assumed the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, while also serving as coordinator of China-ASEAN relations before August of the same year. During this period, Singapore played an important role in securing remarkable progress in intricate China-ASEAN disputes over the South China Sea.  At the same time, Singapore called on all the parties to stay calm and continue to push for COC negotiations and peacefully resolve the disputes. The country also actively promoted China and the ASEAN to implement emergency control measures under the framework of DOC. Notably, it pushed for the adoption of the Guidelines for Hotline Communications among Senior Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of ASEAN Member States and China in Response to Maritime Emergencies in the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in The South China Sea in 2016. In April 2018, ASEAN announced in a briefing that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of ASEAN member states and China have conducted a successful hotline test, allowing for rapid communications and response of countries and avoiding misjudgment on maritime emergencies in the South China Sea.  Moreover, the first China-ASEAN joint maritime military exercise was held under the coordination of Singapore, prioritizing the application of The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) as well as joint maritime search and rescue operations. This drill has boosted China-ASEAN mutual trust and deepened cooperation on defense and maritime security. 

Thailand assumes the ASEAN chairmanship in 2019. Wang Yi, State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, met with Don Pramudwinai, Foreign Minister of Thailand on February 16. During the strategic consultation, they exchanged in-depth views about the South China Sea issue and talked positively about the stabilizing situation in the SCS. Both sides noted that the momentum has been strengthened in boosting dialogue, managing disputes and deepening cooperation, and stressed that the countries concerned should continue their efforts to resolve their disputes peacefully through friendly consultations and negotiations. The Thailand’s foreign minister Don expressed high appreciation for China’s proposal to complete talks on the COC within three years. He went on saying that Thailand is willing to join hands with other ASEAN countries to expedite the consultations to work out regional rules that are consistent with the reality of the region and observed by all parties concerned, so as to benefit the region and the international community.


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Liu Lin

Liu Lin, Senior Colonel, Doctor of Military Science, research fellow in the Institute of Foreign Military Studies of War Studies College, PLA Academy of Military Sciences. Her main research areas include Southeast Asian military, Asia-Pacific security and maritime security. She is the author of the books Study on the Post-Cold War US East Asian Security Strategy and Analysis of ASEAN Militaries. She has published dozens of articles on relevant topics in various academic journals. She once did short-term guest research in Uppsala University and had participated in international academic exchanges in Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, etc.


Promoting Transparency, Peace and Cooperation In SCS
Liu Lin

Liu Lin, Senior Colonel, Doctor of Military Science, research fellow in the Institute of Foreign Military Studies of War Studies College, PLA Academy of Military Sciences. Her main research areas include Southeast Asian military, Asia-Pacific security and maritime security. She is the author of the books Study on the Post-Cold War US East Asian Security Strategy and Analysis of ASEAN Militaries. She has published dozens of articles on relevant topics in various academic journals. She once did short-term guest research in Uppsala University and had participated in international academic exchanges in Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, etc.