PacNet #23 – How ASEAN Should Respond to China’s South China Sea Tactics

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“The South China Sea is a major issue in the heart of ASEAN’s own region. For ASEAN not to address it would severely damage its credibility. ASEAN must not take sides on the various claims, but it has to take and state a position which is neutral, forward-looking, and encourages the peaceful resolution of issues.” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

The South China Sea territorial disputes are among the region’s most critical issues. The first clash occurred in 1974 between the People’s Republic of China and South Vietnam around the Paracel Islands. In 1988, another open conflict erupted between China and a now-unified Vietnam in the Spratly Islands. In 1995, a different conflict between China and the Philippines highlighted Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef, Kalayaan. What is the main reason for this territorial dispute? Scholars point to reasons such as natural resources, fisheries, sea lines of communication, and maritime strategy.

ASEAN member states push the South China Sea as one of the top agenda items because of Beijing’s aggressive efforts to enforce its claims. Although China clearly states that they prefer to discuss the dispute within a bilateral framework rather than multilateral, ASEAN as a regional organization continues to work with other organizations from the UN to resolve the dispute peacefully.

In 1976, ASEAN introduced the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the informal code of conduct for the South China Sea, based on notions of conflict avoidance. In 1990, Indonesia initiated an informal meeting, the Workshop Process on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea, which ended with the Declaration on Code of Conduct (DCOC). However, in early 1992, China passed the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Waters and Contiguous Areas, reiterating China’s claims in the South China Sea and stipulating the right to use force to protect islands and their surrounding waters. Months later, in July 1992, ASEAN responded, with ASEAN’s foreign minister signing the ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea to promote the informal code of conduct based on self-restraint, the non-use of force, and peaceful resolution of disputes.

It took years for ASEAN and China to commit to and sign the DCOC, which brings both parties to work towards a COC in line with the TAC and a Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. Both parties agreed to maintain the status quo over the islands and promote cooperation in the South China Sea. ASEAN and Beijing held a second meeting called the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DCOC). Both parties agreed on six projects scheduled to be implemented from 2006 with funding support from the ASEAN-China Cooperation Fund (ACCF). Despite having those projects together, China made a statutory declaration to the UN secretary-general that it would reject any arbitration over military activities, as well as sea and territorial disputes. Furthermore, in 2007, China conducted military exercises around the Paracel Islands, which raised strong protests from Vietnam. China has not only conducted military exercises but also established the Sansha administrative district in Hainan Island, responsible for managing the Paracel and Spratly islands.

In 2011, ASEAN and China adopted the Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC, which enhanced the practical cooperation in the South China Sea. Months later, ASEAN and China issued a Joint Statement of the Fourteenth ASEAN-China Summit. China promised to work with ASEAN countries on the adoption of a consensus-based COC in the South China Sea to maintain peace, cooperation, security, and stability in the region. Chinese Primer Wen Jiabao also planned to establish ASEAN-China Maritime Corporation Fund. The National Institute for South China Sea Studies held a seminar on “Implementing DOC: Maintaining Freedom and Safety of Navigation in the South China Sea,” showing China’s willing to work together with ASEAN in developing the sea. During the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN failed to issue the joint communique, yet Indonesia helped ASEAN with crafting ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Seaand released it on July 20, 2012.

ASEAN had moved to keep its diplomacy focused on legally codifying the DOC in a binding COC. Initiated by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, ASEAN brought China to the diplomatic table to complete the COC agreement. Moreover, Natalegawa made a so-called “zero draft” for a COC with the DOC as its foundation, yet Beijing insisted that the drafting of COC had to start from scratch. The negotiation started in 2013 with the formation of a working group and, until 2015, the group had not moved beyond procedural issues. ASEAN gives China control of the timetable agreement, yet Beijing keeps mentioning that there can be no COC until the DOC is fully implemented. As China holds the DOC hostage by continuing to assault other claimants’ rights, it looks like China is using it as a delaying tactic to change the status quo of South China Sea disputes.

ASEAN keeps trying to clarify the status of the South China Sea dispute, yet Beijing has a different perspective and mentions that there is no sense of urgency over it. China’s delaying tactic has worked very well as it seeks to militarize its artificial islands in the Spratlys. With diplomacy stuck, it is better for ASEAN to maintain neutrality as its collective response and concentrate on promoting cooperation and joint development. For ASEAN member states, the most beneficial action to address China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is acting like rationalists who combine the realist and liberalist approach. As a realist, it is important to show and maintain national security around the disputed islands by having good relations with other non-claimant great powers, such as the United States, Japan, Australia, or India. ASEAN member states also need to act like liberals by engaging in economic cooperation and join in the development of disputed areas with Beijing.

The Philippines case, which brought the South China Sea case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), has shown that confrontation alone will produce no results. As Graham Allison argues, China, like all great powers, will ignore international legal verdicts. As Thucydides’ summarized in the Melian Dialogue: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—it is commonly understood that the PCA and the International Court of Justice, along with the International Criminal Court, only work for small powers.

Despite China’s disregard of international law, it is important for ASEAN to continue promoting the DOC and COC to keep ASEAN as a credible organization in the region.

Tenny Kristiana (tenny@suou.waseda.jp) is a member of Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program. She has achieved her second postgraduate degree in International Relations from Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #21 – The Philippine and Indonesian Militaries’ War On Covid-19, and What it Means for Reform

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Faced with limited resources and poor health care systems, Indonesia and the Philippines have used their militaries to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines are known for their heavy reliance on military resources. The Covid-19 response has proven this dependency as the two presidents put military men in charge of task forces to handle the pandemic, hoping the organizational effectiveness of the armed forces would produce a fruitful outcome. While this pragmatic approach might be useful in the short term, continuation of this strategy could strain civil-military relations in the long term.

Indonesia: Personal Ties and Critical Legacy of Territorial Structure

Jokowi’s appointment of Doni Monardo, a three-star army general and a former commander of the Army’s Special Force (Kopassus) and the Presidential Security Details (Paspampres), as the head of National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) is unsurprising, as leadership of the organization has traditionally been held by military officers since its inception, relying on their strong leadership, vast networks, and ability to provide a swift response in times of emergency. However, Monardo’s appointment, plus the inclusion of a number of senior military figures on the task force, such as Minister of Health Terawan Agus Putranto and Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto, present implications both for inter-military dynamics and civil-military relations.

Having military figures on the central structures has had a domino effect on the task force at the regional level. Jakarta Military Command Chief Maj. Gen. Eko Margiyono was appointed head of Jakarta’s new emergency hospital. Monardo and Margiyono are close associates in the army. In 2010, Margiyono replaced Monardo as the group A commander of the Paspampres. Both have also served as the commander of Kopassus. For Monardo to work with someone he trusts and is familiar with arguably enhances coordination with the central government.

The military also offers its overarching territorial command structure for the speedy distribution of relief. Following the formation of the task force, Prabowo Subianto requested that the armed forces dispatch an aircraft to pick up medical kits from Shanghai. The military later distributed them to each region across the archipelago, deploying the air force’s aircraft. The Military District Command coordinated distribution.

Territorial command has always been the target of military reform due to its past political interventions under the New Order regime. However, civilian authorities seem reluctant to push more substantial reforms, given that the structure has been a reliable counterpart in times of crisis. The use of army territorial structure in handling the Covid-19 response clearly added another strong justification for maintaining the system.

Philippines: Marawi and Military Work Culture

In mid-March, President Duterte declared the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) for the entire Luzon area, followed by the formation of the National Task Force (NTF) on  Covid-19 led by three retired military generals: Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana as chairman, Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano as vice chairman, and Peace Process Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr as chief implementer. The three generals are no strangers to one another. They worked together during the five-month Marawi Siege: Lorenzana as the administrator of martial law, Ano as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff and chief implementor of martial law, and Galvez as Western Mindanao Command chief.

Bayan Muna party-list lawmakers lambasted the appointment, saying the ECQ is an undeclared martial law and health experts or economists should have been at the wheel. Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo was quick to defend Duterte’s choice, arguing that the retired generals’ discipline, working culture, and less bureaucratic nature will be essential in curbing the pandemic.

The appointment of senior military figures also allows rapid deployment of AFP, as there is a high degree of obedience among military men toward their seniors. The implementation of the ECQ requires substantial manpower and logistics, of which AFP’s involvement is urgently needed. First, the enormous number of military officers are useful to help guard checkpoints, as the Philippines National Police (PNP) has limited manpower. Second, the AFP’s transportation capability is immensely useful. As examples, AFP picked up medical equipment from China by using the air force’s C-130 aircraft and delivered laboratory specimens from other regions to Manila using light transport aircraft. Third, AFP and local contractors built a makeshift hospital at the Navy’s Naval Station Jose Francisco to accommodate Covid-19 patients.

AFP has been very attentive to not create public fear in performing its duties in guarding the ECQ, ensuring that its personnel will be minimally armed, only for security reasons.  Duterte, however, blundered when he ordered police and military to shoot any ECQ offenders. Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies might become a stumbling block to AFP in pursuing further reforms.

Covid-19 and the Cost to Inter-Military Dynamics

Although there are criticisms of the Jokowi and Duterte administrations’ over their highly securitized approach, it should not be neglected that public approval of the military in both countries is high. In October 2019, Indonesian newspaper Kompas released a survey that the Indonesian armed forces has a positive image among 96.6% respondents, the highest recorded since the post-reformation era. Similarly, in March 2020, private pollster SWS released a survey that showing 79% of respondents were satisfied with the AFP’s performance, thanks to AFP’s efforts to take back control of Marawi.

Deploying uniformed officers, however, comes with a cost for intra-organizational dynamics. The formation of Covid-19 task forces in both countries primarily exploits patron-client relationships between junior and senior officers to reduce frictions in carrying out necessary measures. Patronage-based appointments will further nurture factionalism that has been a recurring problem in both militaries.

The patronage-based system will also lead to ramifications in responding to the outbreak. This pattern indicates that the civilian leadership relies on a particular group to implement policies. As information related to the Covid-19 outbreak remains vague and scattered, it can trigger competition among different factions to gather information in order to improve their bargaining position among civilian authorities. Subsequently, each faction might be reluctant to share information and civilian authorities will encounter challenges in putting together the puzzle. This trend also raises questions over military professionalism as it indicates that obedience is determined not by the established chain of command or hierarchy, but personal allegiance.

Chaula Rininta Anindya (ischaula@ntu.edu.sg) is a Research Analyst with the Indonesian Programme at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.