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Maintaining regional stability requires eliminating external interference

2023-09-07 22:42:02       source:CGTN

September 7, 2023

In recent years, the South China Sea issue has always turned up during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits. Although disputes over territorial sovereignty between China and its neighboring countries in the South China Sea are difficult to resolve in the short term, China and ASEAN countries still share common expectations for peace and stability in the region.

At present, what brought about the heat in the South China Sea is clear. Washington is trying to create regional division and confrontation through its "Indo-Pacific Strategy," and a series of security mechanisms against China have made the disputes in the South China Sea increasingly affected by geopolitical consideration.

Although ASEAN countries are vigilant to avoid taking sides in great power confrontation, Washington's strengthening of alliances and hyping up the "China threat" have intensified geopolitical competition in the South China Sea, and distracted ASEAN countries' attention from cooperation in non-traditional security areas. As the largest littoral state in the South China Sea, it is not only reasonable but necessary for China to raise its own security concerns in such a situation.

Over the years, the United States has sent a large number of warships and aircraft to the South China Sea and held military exercises frequently there. On the other hand, to maintain regional peace and stability, ASEAN needs to rethink their diplomatic and military policies, and form a clear view on its strategic autonomy, and on how extra-regional countries could play a constructive role in the region.

Washington has repeatedly emphasized its support for ASEAN centrality, but in practice, what the United States has done is maximize the "instrumental value" of ASEAN countries. The establishment of blocs such as the Quad and AUKUS has weakened ASEAN's driving seat in regional security cooperation. Is Washington really motivated by their respect for ASEAN centrality? Probably not.

What they really want is to reshape the geopolitical environment in China's neighborhood. For instance, according to the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative, the United States, Japan and Australia will explore means of unmanned data collection in the South China Sea. Although the initiative is aimed at enhancing Southeast Asian countries' ability to cope with illegal fishing, and humanitarian and natural disasters, its essence is to track and monitor China's various maritime activities and provide the United States and its allies with basic real-time intelligence in the South China Sea.

What Washington is doing now is to increase its investment in ASEAN under the framework of the "Indo-Pacific Strategy" and affect ASEAN countries in the political, diplomatic, economic, and military fields, trying to bring some of the countries into the "camp" of containing China. Among them, the most obvious is to strengthen the U.S.-Philippines alliance and use the Philippines as a cat's paw in maintaining U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific. As a result, the Philippines is taking a more speculative strategy on the South China Sea issue than in previous years.

Recently, the Philippines' transportation of construction supplies to Ren'ai Reef in the Nansha Islands and China's countermeasures have attracted attention. The Ren'ai Reef issue is in fact not a new problem but dates back to 1999. It is also not a problem between China and ASEAN. If the Philippines tries to rely on the United States to put pressure on China, it will make the situation more complicated and difficult to resolve. From the perspective of avoiding the escalation of the crisis, what the Philippines really needs to do is to enhance mutual trust and work with China to create a positive political atmosphere rather than hyping up incidents at sea.

ASEAN's concern over recent maritime developments is understandable. All the parties are aware of the importance of crisis management through the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) and the need to accelerate COC consultation. The purpose of the COC is not to impose a single solution on all parties related to the disputes, but rather to provide a crisis management approach to the complex disputes and increase the possibility that all participating countries' demands are met.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of China's accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Over the years of interaction, guided by the East Asian approach of mutual respect and consensus, China and ASEAN have accommodated each other's concerns, enhanced mutual understanding and trust through sincere communication, and appropriately addressed differences and disputes by pursuing common ground while shelving differences.

Once the Cold War mentality returns and bloc confrontation takes place, the hard-won peaceful development in the region will inevitably face serious challenges, and the cooperation framework centered on ASEAN will also suffer serious erosion. In this regard, ASEAN countries and China need to strengthen unity, jointly resist negative external influences, and play a positive role in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Ding Duo is deputy director and associate research fellow, the Research Center for Ocean Law and Policy at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. Zhong Hui is assistant researcher, the Division of international exchanges at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies; Secretary at the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea.