South China Sea hot enough to bubble over in 2024

By Richard Javad Heydarian

South China Sea disputes pitting China against Southeast Asian claimants are fast shaping to become the region’s major flashpoint of 2024. In its final act as the outgoing chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia corralled the bloc’s foreign ministers for an unprecedented diplomatic intervention.

As the world prepared for New Year celebrations over the weekend, Southeast Asian foreign ministers issued a joint statement calling on all rival claimant states to exercise restraint and pursue a peaceful resolution of the bubbling maritime spats.

It was the first time in recent memory that the regional body issued a stand-alone joint statement on the South China Sea disputes.

“We closely follow with concern the recent developments in the South China Sea that may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region,” the region’s ten diplomatic chiefs said in a statement.

Although falling short of directly criticizing China, a top ASEAN trading partner, regional diplomatic chiefs emphasized their commitment to upholding stability in “our maritime sphere.”

The language rejected any suggestion, often claimed by Beijing, that the sea disputes are solely bilateral concerns among rival claimants. China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, lay contested claims to the waterway.

Over the past three months alone, the Philippines and China engaged in increasingly risky encounters over the hotly-disputed Second Thomas Shoal, where a small Philippine marine detachment has been stationed for more than two decades.

The Philippines maintains that the disputed feature falls within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) per a 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague, which rejected China’s wide-reaching claims on the basis of international law under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

But the Asian superpower has warned that it would consider more decisive measures in order to thwart Manila’s plans to refurbish its de facto military base in the Second Thomas Shoal this year.

“This will severely infringe on China’s sovereignty, violate international law and the DOC. China will take resolute measures against any violation of our sovereignty and provocation, and firmly safeguard our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” China’s foreign ministry said in a recent statement.

Manila’s ambassador to Washington, Jose Manuel Romualdez, recently argued that “[the South China Sea] is the flashpoint, not Taiwan,” referring to international concern over Beijing’s potential response to the victory of pro-independence forces in this month’s Taiwanese elections.

“[If] anything happens in our area, it’s like the beginning of another war, world war,” he added, emphasizing why all major players have a stake in constraining China’s actions in adjacent waters to the Philippines.

Throughout the year, ASEAN was largely silent on escalating maritime disputes between the Philippines, a founding member of the bloc, and China, the region’s top trading partner.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo remained adamant that the regional body should focus on trade and investment issues while adopting realistic expectations on any unified response to intractable regional challenges, especially the Myanmar conflict as well as the escalating South China Sea tensions.

In response to growing external criticism of ASEAN’s seeming inaction, Indonesia hosted the bloc’s inaugural regional naval exercises during its tenure as ASEAN chairman.

But the proposal immediately met criticism from Beijing-leaning members such as Cambodia, which shunned joining any regional initiative that could alienate China, its strategic and economic patron.

For its part, the Philippines skipped the final exercises, which were moved further away from the South China Sea due to the vocal opposition of Beijing-friendly member states.

Moreover, many ASEAN prime ministers subtly expressed skepticism in recent months of the Philippines’ increasingly assertive stance in the maritime area, raising concerns of a potential destabilizing conflict.

With no single regional state expressing solidarity amid Manila’s festering maritime spats with Beijing, the Southeast Asian nation simply doubled down on joint maritime exercises and patrols with Western partners and their Asian allies.

The upshot was greater alienation within ASEAN’s ranks, with many in Manila openly questioning the regional body’s usefulness, as well as growing criticism by external powers of Jakarta’s claim to “ASEAN centrality.”

Recognizing the urgency of the matter, Indonesia rallied ASEAN states to draw a collective line in the sea.

In an unmistakable expression of support for a besieged founding member, ASEAN ministers reaffirmed their “unity and solidarity and our shared commitment to maintaining and further strengthening stability in our maritime sphere to bring about overall peace, security, stability, and prosperity in our region.”

“We reaffirm the need to restore and enhance mutual trust and confidence as well as exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, [and] avoid actions that may further complicate the situation,” ASEAN foreign ministers said in an unprecedented joint statement over the weekend.

ASEAN ministers fell short of directly invoking the 2016 arbitral tribunal award, which rejected China’s expansive claims in the area as incompatible with modern international law.

Nevertheless, they still emphasized “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to threat or use of force,” in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

They also emphasized the need for a legally binding ASEAN-China Code of Conduct to more effectively manage the disputes. Crucially, the ASEAN ministers also emphasized the need for greater coordination between the major powers, most especially the US and China.

Referring to the dialogue between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in California last November, ASEAN ministers called on the two superpowers to “continue to further ASEAN’s efforts to strengthen stability and cooperation in the region’s maritime sphere,” rather than undermining it through naked geopolitical competition.

ASEAN’s unprecedented stand-alone statement was broadly welcomed by the Philippines and other concerned powers. But it’s unlikely to make any major difference in the short run.

“ASEAN chair should’ve said something much earlier as the various incidents involving started earlier this year,” said Indonesian expert Even Laksamana over his X (formerly Twitter) account.

“If [the] goal is to demonstrate an effort to build solidarity and keep the fragile ‘ASEAN unity’ intact, regardless of [South China Sea] outcomes, then I think the statement is a good first step. It should be the beginning of better-institutionalizing intra-ASEAN [maritime security] foundation.”

By any measure, the situation is volatile. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Colonel Medel Aguilar recently suggested that the construction of a civilian structure over the Second Thomas Shoal has already been earmarked for funding in the Philippine 2024 national budget.

The Chinese foreign ministry has indicated that this would cross its redline, since “this would be another major move the Philippines could take to go back on its words, change its policy and undermine the uninhabited and facility-free status of Ren’ai Jiao [Second Thomas Shoal].”

“[The] Philippines reneged on its words, changed its policy, infringed on China’s sovereignty and made provocations again and again and triggered complex situations,” China’s foreign ministry added, shifting the blame to the Philippines for any dangerous escalation in the area.

But after years of adopting a passive position in the area, especially under the pro-Beijing Rodrigo Duterte presidency, the bulk of the Philippine political establishment supports a more proactive stance on the disputes.

Even Filipino progressives, who are better known for their anti-American rhetoric, are adopting a tougher stance against China.

“China is again spewing lies to counter the international backlash it is now under due to the exposure of its aggressive and dangerous actions in the [South China Sea],” declared Philippine Congresswoman France Castro, a prominent progressive legislator.

“While we believe that the US and other Western powers should not interfere in the South China Sea issue to foster more tension in the area, claimant countries can band together and assert their claim as a block against China. We do not need bullies to fight another bully. What we need is international cooperation with like-minded countries,” she said, emphasizing the futility of relying solely on bilateral diplomacy with China.

Paradoxically, her views somehow echoed those on the other side of the Philippine political spectrum. “The only way to do that is to have multilateral countries show force,” argued Ambassador Romualdez, a cousin and top adviser to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

When asked about the Marcos-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit, the Filipino diplomat claimed, “[Marcos] wanted to show that ‘I’m willing to talk to you.’ But it doesn’t look like President Xi was in the mood to have anything like that…He didn’t say anything. He just listened, and then he just said, ‘We’ll just let our defense and our diplomats talk about this.”

He described the bilateral meeting as “disappointing” since Xi “was very evasive” and “noncommittal.” With the Philippines’ leading diplomats losing faith in direct dialogue with China to resolve the disputes, the Southeast Asian nation is doubling down on support from traditional allies including the US.

This year will likely see major developments in the Philippine-US defense alliance, with the US Pentagon accelerating the preposition of weapons systems in as many as nine Philippine bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Meanwhile, Manila is committed to expanding joint aerial and maritime patrols with like-minded nations across adjacent waters to deter further Chinese assertiveness.

Aside from the US and Australia, which conducted various joint patrols with the Philippines last year, Japan, France, New Zealand, the UK and Canada are also reportedly considering joint multilateral patrols in the South China Sea.

That could make the South China Sea’s already rocky waters even bumpier in 2024.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on X at @Richeydarian