ASEAN and the South China Sea

25 August 2021

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Dr Angela Clare
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam—was created in 1967 to contain the spread of communism and promote stability and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. Today the grouping remains the primary forum for dialogue and cooperation in Southeast Asia, and its leading institutions—including the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit—have played an important role in shaping the region’s rules and values.

For the Australian Government, ASEAN is a key entry point for engagement with the region and its institutions sit ‘at the heart of Australia’s vision for a stable, open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific’.

The complex maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) present a formidable challenge for ASEAN, threatening the region’s stability and testing its leadership. ASEAN’s successful management of the disputes is of both regional and global interest. Southeast Asia is one of the most strategically and economically important regions in the world, with the 10 ASEAN countries home to around 650 million people, the third largest population and fifth largest economy in the world—predicted to be the fourth largest by 2030.[1] The region’s sea lanes connect the oil rich Indian Ocean region to China and the Asia Pacific and are estimated to carry around $5 trillion worth of maritime trade each year, with around 60 per cent entering via the narrow Strait of Malacca.[2] Around 11 billion barrels of oil are believed to lie beneath the seabed, and some 190 trillion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas. As the US and its allies assert their ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy to directly challenge China’s actions in the SCS, the disputes are increasingly seen as a contest between a rule-based and a power-based order.

ASEAN’s formal engagement with China on the SCS began in the early 1990s after a series of clashes raised fears of escalating violence in the waters. After years of unproductive negotiations ASEAN and China signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, agreeing to abide by the principles of international law, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and not to militarise contested areas. The parties also agreed to work towards a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Twenty years later progress ‘can be measured in millimetres’. As we see below, far from complying with the 2002 Declaration of Parties, China has accelerated its expansion and military presence, the disputes have increased in intensity and there appears to be little prospect of finalising a mutually acceptable Code of Conduct. Without any constraint to China’s claims, it is feared that the waterway will become a permanent point of contention.

Over its 50-year history ASEAN has made an important contribution to the region’s stability, building unparalleled convening power and the capacity to mediate ‘broadly peaceful relations among great powers’.[3] But as the SCS disputes open rifts between member states, ASEAN has been unable to respond as a united entity beyond providing a platform for the views of individual leaders. Commentators have argued that ASEAN’s failure to develop an effective instrument to settle the territorial disputes after decades of negotiations is a sign of its increasing irrelevance, while its principles of consensus and non-interference are ill-suited to the region’s new security realities, giving ‘de facto veto power to every ASEAN member irrespective of their interests in the SCS’.[4] This has resulted in paralysis in the face of territorial aggression and decisions that ‘compromise all but satisfy none’.[5]

It is not surprising that the grouping has struggled to find a unified voice on the disputes. Of the four ASEAN claimant countries, Vietnam has borne the brunt of tensions in the waters and is ‘actively hedging’ between the US and China and expanding its strategic alliances outside the region to reduce its vulnerability in the SCS. Brunei and Malaysia have traditionally been reluctant to confront China on the issue, keen to preserve their diplomatic and economic relations. Long-time US ally the Philippines moved closer to China under Duterte’s administration, setting aside the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling that overwhelmingly supported the Philippines’ claims to take advantage of Chinese economic investments. More recently however the Philippines’ administration appears to have reversed this stance, highlighting their PCA victory and pushing back forcefully against the influx of Chinese boats in their waters in July 2021.

Of the non-claimant states, Cambodia is closest to China and has used its veto power to block ASEAN statements on the SCS, while the current regimes in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos are unlikely to support any move that irks China. Indonesia is not a party to disputes and has largely downplayed its differences with China, but it has challenged China’s ‘nine-dash line’ where it extends into the Natuna Sea, and the two countries have clashed over Chinese incursions.

China has meanwhile used its regional economic weight to effectively ‘keep Southeast Asia on a short leash’, according to one observer, stifling protest against its maritime aggression and undermining ASEAN unity on the disputes.

Despite these challenges, commentators see few alternatives to a strong ASEAN in managing the SCS disputes. ‘Frustrating and at times ineffectual as it is’, the International Crisis Group’s Yanmei Xie contends, ASEAN has been at the fore of Southeast Asia’s progress in economic integration and cooperative governance and it would be ‘a mistake to underestimate ASEAN nations’ will to preserve the institution and its ideal’.[6] Veteran Southeast Asian diplomat Bilahari Kausikan argues that ASEAN is too easily discounted, and while lacking economic and military power it wields ‘real influence in maintaining peace and stability in the region’. But it is important to understand how this influence works, Kausikan observes:

[ASEAN’s] fundamental purpose is not to solve problems but to manage mistrust and differences among its members and stabilize a region where even civility in relations is not to be taken for granted, thus minimizing the opportunities for great-power interference.[7]

A key factor in ASEAN’s influence is how it manages its engagement with major powers and its ability to preserve ASEAN ‘centrality’ in regional issues.

US-China competition in Southeast Asia

The South China Sea is often characterised as the epicentre of US-China strategic competition. Managing great power rivalry is not new for ASEAN, which has traditionally relied on a multipolar, non-aligned stance to provide a bulwark against conflicting great power interests. As US analyst David Shambaugh has observed, ‘borne out of their colonial histories, ASEAN states have a long history of protecting their independence and warding off interference and great power competition’.[8]

As US-China competition has unfolded ASEAN nations continue to see little choice but to engage with both sides.[9] But China’s deepening influence has shifted the balance of power in the region, and ASEAN’s ‘balancing act and aspirations for centrality – both within its diverse membership and in relations with the two great powers – have become more difficult and tenuous’.[10] Escalating tensions between the major powers have been viewed with concern as ASEAN countries fear being sidelined by an increasingly adversarial dynamic or ‘forced into invidious choices’.

China’s objectives in the SCS have been among the principal drivers of its relations with ASEAN. China began a dialogue process with ASEAN in 1991 and has steadily increased its engagement, including through a number of maritime cooperation frameworks. By 2010 it had become an ‘agenda setter’, signalling its aim to assume a leading strategic role in the region. Despite widespread unease over China’s growing dominance, Southeast Asia has moved closer to China over this time and views its largest trading partner as an ‘indispensable stakeholder’ in the region.[11]

In contrast, US influence in Southeast Asia over the last few decades is widely seen to have waned, the result of policy neglect and decisions, such as the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ stance. But as the only power able to challenge China’s dominance in the region the US remains a critical balancing force, even though this role is at times ‘grudgingly’ accepted by Southeast Asian countries. For Yanmei Xie the US must ‘walk a fine line’ in its dealings with the region, providing a backstop for the region’s peace and stability without overriding ASEAN leadership or provoking ‘Beijing into a superpower showdown that ends up crushing smaller states’.[12]

ASEAN’s response to US-China rivalry is articulated in its 2019 ‘Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ (AOIP), an assertion of ASEAN values that aims to replace security competition with ‘dialogue and cooperation’, avoiding the ‘deepening of mistrust, miscalculation and patterns of behavior based on a zero-sum game’.[13] The AOIP also seeks to uphold the centrality of ASEAN’s regional architecture and respect for international law, making specific reference to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The AOIP is careful to distinguish ASEAN’s vision for the region from the US concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, to avoid any association with US strategies to counter China. ASEAN instead promotes a vision of mitigating great power rivalries by providing ‘an inclusive meeting place for the competing visions of regional order offered by great and regional players’.[14]

From Indonesia’s perspective the AOIP was ‘a strategic necessity’: ‘ASEAN can no longer sit and watch extra-regional powers actively shape the future of the region’. But commentators argue that ASEAN needs to do more than simply assert its centrality—it needs to earn it by taking a stance on pivotal strategic issues such as the SCS.[15]

ASEAN-China Code of Conduct for the South China Sea

For ASEAN, an agreed Code of Conduct (COC) is critical to preventing conflict and managing disputes in the SCS.[16] As noted above, however, the process of working towards a COC has been fraught and protracted. ASEAN’s long-term goal has been to establish a binding COC that commits parties to a rules-based, as opposed to a power-based, regional order.[17] But the first drafts exchanged between ASEAN and China in 2000—some six years after endorsing the concept­­—revealed major areas of disagreement, including on the geographic scope of a Code of Conduct, restrictions on construction on occupied and unoccupied features, military activities in disputed waters and policies on the detention of fishermen found in disputed waters.[18] Since then ASEAN has failed to achieve internal consensus on several key issues, including what would constitute a binding COC, while China has exploited these divisions to prolong and deflect decisions.

The scope of a COC has been limited from the beginning. Both ASEAN and China agreed that a COC could not address the ‘root cause’ of the disputes—namely, competing sovereignty claims or disputes over maritime jurisdictions—which will ‘only be resolved by direct negotiations amongst the claimant states’. On key substantive issues, however, ASEAN and China have been unable to resolve their differences. China has rejected ASEAN’s demand for a binding COC, arguing that adherence should be voluntary.[19] It has also insisted that jurisdictional disputes be resolved bilaterally, part of what is seen as a ‘divide and rule’ strategy which aims to prevent claimant countries from acting collectively and diluting protests against its violations of the DOC.[20]

China has largely been successful in this endeavour. ASEAN as a grouping has never formally mentioned China’s maritime and territorial violations in the SCS, nor the 2016 arbitral ruling in favour of the Philippines. The August 2011 ASEAN ministerial meeting to adopt principles for implementing the DOC resulted in merely ‘vague guidelines’ with ASEAN forced to drop its demand for prior consultations.[21] A year later the 20th ASEAN Summit shook tradition by ending for the first time without an agreed leaders’ statement after the Cambodian Chair refused to allow references to the SCS disputes in the final text. During the Philippines’ 2017 chairmanship of ASEAN, President Duterte prevented any adversarial statements directed at China’s escalation in disputed territories, cementing the practice of not discussing the 2016 arbitral ruling.[22]

Overall, US analyst Felix Chang argues, the COC process has done little to foster cohesion among ASEAN countries. Rather than pulling together in the face of an ever more powerful China, ASEAN states have pursued independent strategies, ‘clinging to their rights to national sovereignty over cooperation and unity’, while China ‘seems to have convinced most Southeast Asian countries that opposing it would come at the expense of their future prosperity, whether through reduced trade with China or investment from its Belt and Road Initiative’.[23]

United States Studies Centre (USSC) analysts John Lee and Davina Lee argue that the COC process has allowed ASEAN to become ‘inadvertently complicit’ in China’s security objectives in Southeast Asia:

… drawn-out Code of Conduct negotiations allow China to admonish other powers, especially the US and its allies, for interfering in the process. By using economic largess or else coercion to pick off selected countries it has prevented the emergence of any consensus within ASEAN. At the same time, Beijing continues to unilaterally and illegally expand and consolidate control over areas of the SCS whilst deflecting criticism by pointing out that it is tirelessly seeking a diplomatic and negotiated solution with Southeast Asia nations.[24]

Even as they insist that regional diplomacy and agendas must be driven by ASEAN ‘norms, mechanisms and processes’, the authors argue, ASEAN states have been unable to place any constraints on China’s actions. ASEAN’s insistence on ‘not taking sides’ and reluctance to criticise China means in practice that it tacitly supports the status quo China has established, in violation of ASEAN’s own principles. China has ‘outplayed’ the US in the ASEAN game, they conclude, despite the ‘profound fears about Chinese dominance held by ASEAN member states’.

For its part China has endeavoured to exclude the US and other non-regional actors from involvement in the disputes by opposing any attempts to ‘internationalize’ the issue, demanding the COC:

… should not be covered by the UNCLOS treaty; joint military exercises with countries outside the region must have the prior consent of all parties to the agreement; and no resource development should be conducted with countries outside the region.[25]

As Southeast Asia analyst Huong Thi Ha notes, this ‘characterisation of “rule-making” is diametrically opposed to ASEAN’s outward-looking approach that seeks to engage all external powers in an open, inclusive regional order’.[26]

Both sides have nevertheless remained committed to a COC process and since 2017 consultations have gained momentum. A single draft negotiating text was agreed in 2018 and intended to serve as the basis for the adoption of a COC. But the process continues to fail to advance fundamental issues, notably the geographic scope of a COC, dispute settlement mechanisms, resource management and the Code’s legal status.[27]

Analysts are sceptical that China’s continued enthusiasm for the COC process indicates any change in its agenda, pointing to its controversial new coast guard law—which authorises China’s Coast Guard to use force against any foreign vessels found in waters that Beijing claims as its territory—and continued harassment of claimants’ vessels to argue that it remains unlikely that China would accept any legal requirement to comply with UNCLOS and the PCA award.

China’s commitment to the COC process has been linked to its wish to be seen as a credible rules-maker in the region and discomfort in being seen as an ‘outlaw’ in regard to the 2016 arbitral ruling. Hoang Thi Ha suggests that China sees a non-binding ASEAN code of conduct as an opportunity to ‘extricate itself’ from the ruling, confine the issue to a regional dispute, reduce the scope for US involvement, and maximise its role in shaping the rules of the region. An ASEAN COC process could help China achieve this end, Thi Ha argues:

The prized value of the CoC process to Beijing is not to prevent and manage incidents, but to create and amplify the positive narrative that regional countries can manage their problems and hence external powers should be kept at bay. The end-goal is to work towards a regional maritime order that is best left to China and its smaller neighbours without “outsider intervention” – one that is more pliable and conforming to China’s worldview and interests.[28]

Until recently the US has couched its interests in the SCS on the basis of freedom of navigation, but in July 2020 the US signalled a shift in focus to international law, declaring most of China’s claims in the SCS unlawful and aligning its position with the 2016 arbitral ruling.[29] The change in US rhetoric is seen as adding to international pressure on China:

It is much easier to rally international support against “illegal” activity than against actions that are merely distasteful or destabilizing. It is also much more damaging to a country that aspires to global leadership to be accused of gross violations of international law.[30]

ASEAN’s strengthening resolve?

ASEAN countries have pushed back against China’s actions in the SCS on many occasions over the past few decades, but until recently this resistance has tended to remain discreet. There are signs of an emerging regional consensus on the illegality of China’s claims, however, and increased willingness on the part of ASEAN leaders to voice their opposition in a more unified way. 

In December 2019 Malaysia surprised many with a strongly-worded challenge to China’s claims to the maritime features in the SCS in its submission to the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf, arguing that the claims had ‘no basis under international law’.[31] Malaysia’s challenge is of particular note in that it broke the ‘legal logjam’ created when President Duterte set aside the 2016 PCA ruling in his country’s favour, which effectively disabled the ruling while other claimant states remained silent. Earlier in 2019 the Malaysian Foreign Minister stated that Malaysia will ‘“always tell Beijing that we will discuss the SCS on a group basis”’ and that ‘“going bilateral would put it at a disadvantage”’.

In what has been seen as a diplomatic blow to China, Malaysia’s move has sparked a series of note verbales from Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore, as well as Australia, Japan, France, Germany, the UK and the US, confirming their support for UNCLOS and the primacy of international law.[32] Shortly after, Indonesia became the first ASEAN country to invoke the 2016 PCA ruling when it used ‘uncharacteristically strident language’ to assert China’s claims in the Natuna Sea had ‘no legal basis’ in UNCLOS.[33]

The COVID-19 induced pause in ASEAN-China COC negotiations also appears to have strengthened ASEAN leaders’ resolve on the issue. Vietnam used its position as ASEAN Chair in 2020 to take a stronger leadership role, overseeing a ‘significant shift in ASEAN’s rhetoric’ on the disputes in the 36th ASEAN Summit Chair’s statement by affirming ‘that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones’.

A number of ASEAN countries have signalled their intention to work more cooperatively on SCS disputes. In April 2021 Malaysia and Vietnam signed an agreement on maritime security, while Indonesia and Vietnam resumed talks to finalise negotiations on the maritime boundary between their Exclusive Economic Zones near the SCS and committed to finalising an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct in line with international law. In July 2020 Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding with the US, pledging support for Vietnamese fishermen against what the US called ‘illegal intimidation’ in the waterway. In a significant foreign policy reversal, the Philippines Government publicly acknowledged the 2016 arbitral ruling in 2020 and has robustly defended its sovereignty in the SCS over recent months in response to ongoing incursions by Chinese vessels in disputed waters, under its pragmatic policy of ‘cooperation as much as possible and pushback whenever necessary’.[34]

The shift in ASEAN leaders’ positions has been linked to what some see as China’s overreach on the SCS disputes. China has ‘run roughshod’ over its neighbours in maritime disputes, rejected the authority of international legal bodies and escalated military confrontations with the US and others, it has been argued, eroding confidence in China as ‘a good-faith partner’ in negotiations on the SCS.[35]

Huong Le Thu observes that China has historically been adept at operating just below the ‘red line’, pushing boundaries ‘just below the threshold of open conflict’. For Le Thu, the SCS has been a prime example of how this works, but now ‘the traditional playbook of “divide and rule”, in which such provocative actions that usually target one claimant at a time to prevent solidarity among ASEAN members, seems to have been set aside’:

In recent months, spats have broken out with Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Even Indonesia, which is not a party to disputed territories with China, has publicly opposed Beijing's South China Sea claims. On June 4, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said at a press conference that Jakarta objected to China's "so-called nine-dash line" and "so-called historic rights". The Philippines has also backtracked from a decision to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, citing obliquely "political and other developments in the region".[36]

Where to from here?

While pointing out the limitations of an ASEAN-China COC, analysts hold out hope that ASEAN may yet prove able to forge an effective platform to manage the disputes.

The Center for Strategic and International studies (CSIS) Expert Working Group on the South China Sea argues that ASEAN’s greatest value in regard to the SCS lies not in its Code of Conduct but in providing the diplomatic platform needed to engage claimant parties in dialogue. Negotiations on the COC will inevitably be prolonged and inconclusive, they submit, and the process should not be seen as a dispute resolution mechanism. Nor is an ASEAN-China COC the right vehicle to negotiate the details of resource management in disputed areas—‘a necessary component for effectively managing the disputes’—since the process involves not just claimants but all ASEAN members. The real value of the COC process, they argue, is in ‘managing the tension surrounding the disputes and removing the triggers for conflict’ by:

… articulat[ing] and clarify[ing] aspects of the international rules-based order as applied to the South China Sea and establish[ing] important rules and processes for managing tensions pending the eventual settlement of disputes.

Southeast Asia analyst Richard Heydarian holds out hope that ASEAN can provide a platform for its members to build ‘a coordinated and coherent resistance’ to China, and notes that China has shown a willingness to respond to international pressure:

From its decision to forego veto powers within the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank amid Western pushback to greater emphasis on debt sustainability and major concessions to Malaysia over “debt trap” concerns vis-à-vis the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has shown its willingness to recalibrate in face of concerted pushback. One reason China has refused to specify the precise coordinates of its nine-dash line claims is because it wants to maintain space for negotiations down the road. Absent a coordinated and coherent resistance among key regional states, China will likely continue its current course of transforming the regional maritime and geopolitical landscape in its own image.[37]

For ASEAN to take leadership on the issue, however, analysts suggest that its member states need to expand their understanding of the ‘ASEAN way’ and embrace a broader understanding of their national interest. Bilahari Kausikan argues that ASEAN countries need to recall one of the founding tenets of the organisation, that the ‘regional interest had to be part of the national interest’. Reflecting on Cambodia’s refusal to compromise on ASEAN language on the SCS in 2012 he noted:

ASEAN is an inter-state organisation, not a supra-national organisation. No member is required to give up its sovereign right to define its national interests as it chooses. … But as S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first foreign minister, put it at the signing of the Bangkok Declaration in 1967, henceforth Southeast Asian nations had to adopt a “new way of thinking,” in which the regional interest had to be some part of each member’s definition of national interest. The other foreign ministers made much the same point in their own ways.

ASEAN’s original members had differences of interests that were, in some cases, more fundamental than Cambodia’s support for China. Among them, the Philippine claim to Sabah which led Malaysia to boycott some early ASEAN meetings; the role of foreign bases in Southeast Asia, which almost led Singapore to walk out of the foreign minister’s meeting drafting the Bangkok Declaration; and at the end of the 1980s during the end-game in Cambodia, when Indonesia again tried to impose its will as regional hegemon. But the sense that the regional interest had to be part of the national interest held ASEAN together, and compromises were found.[38]

It has also been suggested that ASEAN adopt a new approach to decision-making in key areas of security cooperation, applying an ‘ASEAN minus-X’ formula or ‘flexible consensus’ principle in such cases. Heydarian describes the ASEAN minus-X formula as a kind of ‘“mini-lateral cooperation” whereby like-minded Southeast Asian states jointly coordinate their response to a specific crisis without hopelessly requiring the consent of regional naysayers’.[39]

Hoang Thi Ha believes there is sufficient nuance in ASEAN’s core principles to allow for action:

The exercise of non-interference in ASEAN has so far been more nuanced than generally depicted. There has been no lack of painstaking effort by ASEAN to reconcile this principle with the imperative to consult and influence each other on matters that affect ASEAN’s common interest and regional peace and stability. This includes the ongoing endeavours by Indonesia and other likeminded ASEAN member states to effect positive change in Myanmar. After all, non-interference is not the only principle enshrined in the ASEAN Charter. It should be interpreted and applied in balance with the principles of “shared commitment and collective responsibility in enhancing regional peace, security and prosperity” (Art. II.2(b)), “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government” (Art. II.2(h)) and “enhanced consultations on matters seriously affecting the common interest of ASEAN” (Art. II.2(g)).[40]

Commentators are urging the international community to build a coalition of support for Southeast Asian countries and ‘help steer China toward a compromise that the international community could live with’. Such a compromise, according to a former US Assistant Secretary of State, is ‘the best chance to peacefully manage the SCS disputes’.[41]

Yanmei Xie argues that the great powers ‘would be better off’ supporting ASEAN to maintain the region’s stability. ASEAN’s ‘undoing’ would drive regional states to ‘seek security through destabilizing arms races, bandwagoning, and offshore balancing’, she contends:

China and the U.S. are unlikely to see eye to eye on most issues in the South China Sea any time soon, but both would be better off preserving ASEAN’s centrality in managing the thorny disputes. The alternative is a fractured region caught between two superpowers inching closer with bare knuckles.[42]

[1].    J Stromseth, Rivalry and response: assessing great power dynamics in Southeast Asia, Brookings Institution Press, 2021, p. 1.

[2].    N Naxar Soomro, ‘ASEAN’s role in conflict management: active and effective?’ University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, blog, 17 November 2017.

[3].    R Heydarian, ‘At a strategic crossroads: ASEAN centrality amid Sino-American rivalry in the Indo-Pacific’, in JR Stromseth, ed., Rivalry and response: assessing great power dynamics in Southeast Asia, Brookings Institution, 2021, p. 58.

[4].    R Heydarian, ‘At a strategic crossroads’, ibid., pp. 53–54. P Kim Beng, ‘ASEAN is failing’, op. cit.; L Tong, ‘The ASEAN crisis, part 1: why the South China Sea is a critical test’, The Diplomat, 21 December 2016. R Heydarian, ‘At a strategic crossroads’, op. cit., p. 58.

[5].    Huong Le Thu, ‘Asean’s response to Chinese militarisation in the South China Sea? Keep quiet and carry on’, South China Morning Post, 3 May 2017.

[6].    Y Xie, The South China Sea needs ASEAN more than ever, International Crisis Group, July 2016.

[7].    B Kausikan, The arena: Southeast Asia in the age of great-power rivalry, Council on Foreign Relations, New York, 2021.

[8].    D Shambaugh, Where great powers meet: America and China in Southeast Asia, Oxford University Press, New York, 2021, p. 4.

[9].    L Odgaard, ‘The South China Sea: ASEAN’s security concerns about China’, Security Dialogue, 34(1), March 2003, p. 13.

[10]. M Cook and Hoang Thi Ha, ‘Formal and flexible: ASEAN and the new strategic disorder’, Perspective, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 17 August 2020.

[11]. R Heydarian, ‘At a strategic crossroads’, op. cit., p. 56.

[12]. Y Xie, The South China Sea needs ASEAN more than ever, op. cit.

[13]. A Acharya, ‘The myth of ASEAN centrality?’ Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, 39(2), August 2017, pp. 273–279. ASEAN centrality refers to the idea that ASEAN should remain at the core of Asia-Pacific regional institutions, processes and multinational frameworks.

[14]. HE Rizal Sukma, ‘Indonesia, ASEAN and shaping the Indo-Pacific idea’, East Asia Forum, 19 November 2019.

[15]. R Heydarian, ‘At a strategic crossroads’, op. cit., p. 57.

[16]. L Odgaard, ‘The South China Sea: ASEAN’s security concerns about China’, Security Dialogue, 34(1), March 2003, pp. 11–23.

[17]. R De Castro, ‘Limits of intergovernmentalism: the Philippines’ changing strategy in the South China Sea dispute and its impact on ASEAN’, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 39(3) 2020, p. 340.

[18]. C Thayer, ‘ASEAN, China and the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea’, SAIS Review of International Affairs, 33(2), 2013, p. 76.

[19]. R De Castro, ‘Limits of intergovernmentalism’, op. cit., p. 351.

[20]. D O’Neill, Dividing ASEAN and conquering the South China Sea, Hong Kong University Press, 2018, pp. 12–13.

[21]. R De Castro, ‘Limits of intergovernmentalism’, op. cit.

[22]. The 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling on the arbitration brought by the Philippines against China is one of the major hurdles in COC negotiations. The PCA ruled that China’s ‘nine-dash line’ had no legal basis, and that no maritime features in the Spratly Islands are considered ‘islands’, meaning that they do not generate claims to an EEZ or continental shelf. Despite being a signatory to UNCLOS, China has not accepted the 2016 PCA ruling.

[23]. F Chang, ‘Uncertain prospects’, op. cit.

[24]. J Lee and D Lee, ‘Understanding, analysing and countering Chinese non-military efforts to increase support for, and decrease desistance to, Beijing’s strategic and defence objectives in Southeast Asia’, United States Studies Centre, 4 February 2020.

[25]. T Takahashi, ‘What China really wants from South China Sea Code of Conduct’, Nikkei Asia, 12 August 2019.

[26]. Huong Thi Ha, ‘ASEAN and the South China Sea Code of Conduct: raising the aegis of international law’, Yushok Ishak Institute (ISEAS), 21 September 2020.

[27]. NM Quang, ‘Negotiating an effective China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct’, East Asia Forum, July 2019.

[28]. Huong Thi Ha, ‘ASEAN and the South China Sea Code of Conduct’, op. cit.

[29]. R Strating, ‘What does the US Statement on the South China Sea means for Security in the Asia Pacific?’, Australian Institute of International Affairs, 1 January 2021.

[30]. G Poling, ‘How significant is the new US South China Sea Policy?’ Center for Strategic & International Studies, 14 July 2020.

[31]. Linh Pham, ‘South China Sea-related notes verbales might deal huge blow to China’s prestige’, Hanoi Times, 6 August 2020.

[32]. Australia, Japan and the US were amongst the nine countries that filed submissions to the UN.

[33]. R Heydarian, ‘At a strategic crossroads’, op. cit., p. 60.

[34]. A Robles and Reuters, ‘Philippines won’t move an inch on South China Sea, Duterte tells Beijing’, South China Morning Post, 14 May 2021.

[35]. V Nouwens and B Herzenger, ‘Above the law: holding China to account in the South China Sea’, Observer Research Foundation, 12 April 2021.

[36]. Huong Le Thu, ‘China’s feverish overreach wasted an opportunity offered by Covid-19’, ASPI, 26 June 2020.

[37]. R Heydarian, ‘At a strategic crossroads’, op. cit., pp. 60–61.

[38]. B Kausikan, ‘ASEAN’s commitment to consensus’, Australian Institute of International Affairs, 24 September 2020.

[39]. R Heydarian, ‘How the Myanmar coup and the South China Sea disputes are deepening ASEAN’s irrelevance’, South China Morning Post, 12 May 2021.

[40]. Huong Thi Ha, ‘Hang together or hang separately?’ ASEAN focus, ISEAS-Yushof Ishak Institute, 30 March 2021.

[41]. G Poling, ‘How significant is the new US South China Sea Policy?’, op. cit.

[42]. Y Xie, ‘The South China Sea needs ASEAN more than ever’, International Crisis Group, July 2016.


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