Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: A Dramatic Year Fails to Smooth the South China Sea

A Dramatic Year Fails to Smooth the South China Sea

By Gregory Poling (@GregPoling), Director, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (@AsiaMTI) and Fellow, Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC); and Geoffrey Hartman, Fellow, Southeast Asia Program, CSIS

The Seventh Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference on July 18 brought together security, legal, and environmental experts to review events of the past year. The participants had a lot of ground to cover: the impact of the arbitral tribunal’s award in Manila’s case against Beijing, the near-completion of China’s artificial island bases in the Spratly Islands, and the elections of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Donald Trump in the United States. 

Given this raft of new developments, it is striking how calm the South China Sea has been over the last year and how little has changed regarding the core issues. The arbitral tribunal’s award—released to great interest the same day as last year’s CSIS South China Sea Conference—has had limited impact due to a combination of China’s refusal to accept the ruling and the decision by the Philippines under Duterte not to press the issue. Despite diplomatic outreach and talk of cooperation by China, Beijing continues to threaten other claimants engaged in behavior it does not approve of. This became painfully obvious in mid-July when China reportedly coerced Vietnam into halting oil and gas drilling in an area of Vietnam’s claimed continental shelf that falls within the nine-dash line. 

Participants at this year’s conference discussed China’s artificial island bases in the Spratlys more for their potential long-term effects than for any use over the past year. The balance between military and civilian activities planned for these dual-use facilities is unclear, as is the nature and tempo of future military operations from them. Disagreement remains over how great the bases’ impact will be both for peacetime competition and in a potential regional conflict.

Duterte has seemingly upended the situation in the South China Sea with his rhetorical bluster and about-face on policy toward Beijing. But some experts at the conference suggested there may be less volatility in Manila than meets the eye, with diplomatic outreach to Beijing coupled with continued, if quiet, support for the tribunal ruling and the U.S. alliance. Duterte’s strategic vision is not clear, but his foreign policy moves thus far do not indicate a sea change in Philippine foreign policy. 

Many experts, meanwhile, noted relief in the region that the new U.S. administration has not ignored Southeast Asia as feared and instead has demonstrated policy continuity in the South China Sea, at least on the part of the Pentagon, through recent freedom of navigation operations. The region remains uncertain about the Trump administration’s goals and broader strategy for Asia, but is cautiously optimistic that Washington will lay out its broader vision at ASEAN-led meetings later in the year.

Overall, the conference painted a relatively calm but unstable state of play in the South China Sea. It suggested that skepticism is warranted over the chances that diplomatic efforts will lead to any game-changing breakthroughs in the near term and that ongoing developments, including militarization of artificial islands and resource competition, could significantly alter the dynamics of this long-running and entrenched dispute. But if there is a key takeaway from the conference, it is that a landmark international legal ruling, the completion of China’s massive military infrastructure project, and political earthquakes in two key players left the dispute no closer to resolution than it was a year ago.

Nonetheless, the claimant states continue to work to manage their disputes diplomatically, both bilaterally and through mechanisms like the China-ASEAN discussions on a framework code of conduct. While coercion by military and law enforcement vessels remains a concern, the claimants are so far refraining from using military force to advance their claims, though Beijing’s reported threat of force against Vietnam over oil exploration could be a worrying signpost for the future. Freedom of navigation for commercial traffic through the South China Sea faces no serious challenges, though the same cannot be said of other lawful uses of the sea by Southeast Asian states and others. The U.S. military continues to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows despite pro forma protests and the occasional unprofessional intercept by China. 

U.S. policy in the South China Sea should seek to maintain stability and deter aggression while acting where possible to move trends in a positive direction. Long-standing U.S. positions of support for international law, peaceful settlement of disputes, and defense of allies should be maintained, as should U.S. neutrality over questions of sovereignty. The United States should support continued discussion between China and the other claimants, on both a bilateral and multilateral basis, while remaining clear-eyed about the limitations of current frameworks for managing the disputes. Ultimately a negotiated solution is the only way to manage and eventually resolve the South China Sea disputes, and the United States should encourage the claimants to move in that direction even if the prospects seem dim or the timetable depressingly long. If, as expected, the ASEAN-China framework for a code of conduct proves a disappointment, the United States should support creative diplomatic alternatives, including under an ASEAN-minus format (meaning ASEAN minus the noninterested parties like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand).

Policymakers and commentators in the United States would also be well advised to devote more attention to the environmental damage caused by coral reef destruction and overfishing in the South China Sea. While environmental challenges get far less coverage than traditional security threats do, this year’s South China Sea Conference again made clear that environmental destruction and overfishing are arguably the most urgent priorities for the claimant states to address. An imminent collapse of fish stocks could affect the food supply and livelihoods of millions of people around the South China Sea, making the area a natural and relatively less-controversial one to encourage greater cooperation between the claimant states.

Gregory Poling is director of the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program. Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program.

Biweekly Update

Duterte visits Marawi as battle drags on 
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on July 20 visited Marawi City to address troops fighting to win back control of the city from fighters linked to the Islamic State. The Marawi siege began on May 23 and has claimed nearly 600 lives so far. Duterte’s visit to Marawi followed his July 14 comment in Davao City acknowledging that the Armed Forces of the Philippines have received military assistance from the United States and China during the siege. The Philippine Congress on July 22 approved Duterte’s request to extend martial law for the southern island of Mindanao until the end of the year.

Jokowi signs decree limiting freedom of association 
Indonesian president Joko Widodo on July 10 issued a decree amending a 2013 law on societal organizations to allow the minister of Law and Human Rights the authority to ban organizations that oppose the official state ideology of Pancasila. The decree has been criticized by human rights group as a threat to freedom of association, and must be approved by the Indonesian legislature in its next session, which begins on August 16. The government’s new powers were invoked for the first time on July 19 when the legal status of hardline Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) was revoked. HTI is seeking a to challenge the government’s action by requesting a review in the Constitutional Court. Pancasila includes five basic principles: belief in one God, Indonesian unity, humanism, democracy, and social justice for all.

Indonesian legislative leader named suspect in graft case 
Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission on July 17 named Speaker of the House of Representatives Setya Novanto as a suspect in a $173 million scheme to embezzle money intended for a government project to issue electronic identity cards. Novanto, who is also chairman of the Golkar Party, is alleged to have played a key role in planning the embezzlement scheme. Novanto publicly denied the accusations and refused to resign from his positions as house speaker and party chairman. Novanto previously resigned as speaker in December 2015 after he was accused of soliciting a $1.8 billion bribe from mining company Freeport Indonesia, but was reinstated as speaker in November 2016. 

Mahathir named chairman of Malaysian opposition coalition 
Malaysia’s opposition political coalition Pakatan Harapan on July 14 announced former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed (1981-2003) as its new chairman. Former opposition leader and longtime Mahathir nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently serving a five-year jail term for sodomy, was named de facto leader of the coalition. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, will serve as the coalition’s president. The 92-year-old Mahathir on July 19 said that he is the “top dog” in the coalition despite its unique three-person leadership structure, and suggested he would be the opposition’s candidate for prime minister in the upcoming general election that must be held by August 2018.

Narrow victory for Fretilin in Timor-Leste parliamentary elections 
Preliminary results from Timor-Leste’s July 22 parliamentary elections show the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) party winning 30 percent of the vote, followed closely by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party with 28 percent. Fretilin is expected to hold 23 seats out of 65 in the next parliament, while the CNRT is expected to hold 22. The results are a reversal of the previous parliamentary election result in 2012, when the CNRT won the majority. Both parties, which have formed a de facto ruling partnership since 2015, are expected to continue their coalition. 

Aquino faces criminal charges over Mamasapano raid 
The Philippine Office of the Ombudsman on July 14 filed criminal charges against former president Benigno Aquino over the botched 2015 raid at Mamasapano in the southern province of Mindanao that led to more than 60 deaths, including those of 44 police commandos. Aquino is charged with usurpation of authority and corruption for allowing then Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Alan Purisima—who was under suspension at the time for possible corruption—to help plan the raid. Aquino filed an appeal on July 19, claiming that his right to due process had been violated when the ombudsman charged him with unrelated crimes after dismissing complaints filed by relatives of the slain police officers that Aquino had engaged in reckless imprudence resulting in homicide.

Thai king given full control of royal assets 
Thailand amended the Crown Property Act on July 17 to give King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who became monarch in October 2016 after his father died, full control over the Crown Property Bureau. The bureau manages the monarchy’s institutional assets, which are estimated at between $30 billion and $60 billion. The amendment was the first to crown property laws since 1948, and could undermine the previous distinction between the king’s personal property and crown property controlled by the nominally independent bureau. The king on July 18 named close aide Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol—who also supervises the king’s private property—as the new chairman of the bureau, a role that has traditionally been held by the finance minister.

Thailand sentences 62 found guilty of human trafficking 
A Thai court on July 19 convicted 62 defendants accused of human trafficking, including several military, police, and political officials. The defendants were accused of trafficking migrants through Thailand’s southern provinces, including Rohingya Muslim and Bangladeshi migrants whose graves were found at jungle camps near the border with Malaysia in 2015. The highest-ranking official to be convicted was Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, the former head of internal security operations in southern Thailand, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Indonesia latest country to rename portion of South China Sea 
The Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs on July 14 announced that it had renamed the northern section of its claimed exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea. Deputy minister for maritime sovereignty Arif Havas Oegroseno announced the new name at the unveiling of a new official map of Indonesia in Jakarta. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the name change made “no sense at all” and was not conducive to efforts to standardize international place names. 

Vietnam party chief visits Cambodia 
Vietnamese Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong on July 20 met with Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, where the two leaders issued a joint statement affirming close relations and cooperation on bilateral trade, border issues, greater sub-Mekong region initiatives, and the South China Sea. Trong also announced that Vietnam would donate $25 million to help construct a new building for the Cambodian National Assembly. Hun Sen’s government, which was installed following Vietnam’s ouster of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, has in recent years supported China’s positions against Vietnam in the South China Sea in ASEAN deliberations.


Vietnam’s Efforts to Internationalize Higher Education Achieves a Milestone
By Minh Vu

Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) has attracted much attention because it was born out of Vietnam-U.S. bilateral engagement. However, as the university welcomes its first class in September, FUV will become more than just a diplomatic achievement. It will mark another step in the ongoing effort by the government to lift Vietnam’s higher education to international standards through collaboration with the private sector and foreign governments...Read More>>>
Photo credit: Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images
Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Geoffrey Hartman