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

Pacnet image.jpg

“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 ( 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 #22 – The US-Australia Alliance and Deterrence in the Pacific Islands Region

Pacnet image.jpg

The full version of this article is available on Pacific Forum’s Young Leader Blog.

Since 2018, representatives from Australia and the United States have engaged in an annual dialogue to refresh the alliance’s thinking about deterrence in an era of strategic competition with China. These discussions have underscored several assumptions and expectations in need of revisitation, including as to where the allies should expect to better defend, deter and, if necessary, fight together in the Indo-Pacific.

However, the Pacific Islands region (PIR) remains somewhat peripheral to these discussions. Historically, the region has not been a leading source of “traditional” military threats, but America and Australia can no longer afford to overlook the PIR as a locus of Chinese security activity. Indeed, a Pacific base could “give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the US … and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis.” There is arguably a growing need to incorporate planning and action against this possibility, however slim, into alliance discussions.

Both allies have long-standing regional interests, but are both guilty of under-resourcing and under-engagement save for short-term moments of “crisis-driven interest.” Some argue that the growth in Chinese influence in the PIR has occurred while Washington has been asleep at the wheel. While aid and trade have been Washington’s preferred avenues for engagement, the capacity and resourcing problemsassociated with the Obama Administration’s “Asia Rebalance” arguably impacted on security engagement with the PIR, too. Indeed, the region remains peripheral to the Trump Administration’s strategic thinking. The 2017 National Defense Strategy does not mention the PIR once, while Indo-Pacific Strategy documents from the Department of Defense and Department of State do not provide long-term blueprintsfor addressing the region’s strategic challenges. Notwithstanding encouraging signs in the FY20 NDAA, contemporary US strategic interests in the PIR truly remain somewhat unclear.

Historically, Australian PIR policies have also waxed and waned, though its recent behavior is more encouraging. Canberra had become accustomed to perceiving the Pacific as a source of primarily non-traditional security threats, and distant campaigns in the Middle East have driven capability development and operational spending since 2001. Fortunately, China’s growing Pacific profile has shifted Australia’s strategic attention and resources back to the region. Aid and infrastructure have formed the most visible components of the government’s ‘Pacific Step-Up’ policy to date, but Canberra has also upscaled regional security engagement. Among other initiatives, the annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour naval exercise was conducted through the Pacific in 2018, while Australia is sponsoring programs to improve states’ maritime domain awareness and surveillance capabilities, and standing up a Pacific Support Force to lead regional military training.

There is evidently some distance between current Australian and American perceptions of the PIR’s strategic importance, and it could not come at a more significant time. Though perhaps driven more by “strategic opportunism” than Grand Strategy, China’s growing regional influence could have serious implications for the alliance should Chinese-funded infrastructure projects facilitate a regular military presence. Such a development would allow China to surveil alliance peacetime activities, exert control over vital waterways, or threaten local forces in the event of major conflict in Asia.  challenges allegations that China is subjecting the PIR to “debt-trap diplomacy,” yet weak regional governance and the generally small scale of infrastructure required create a favorable cost-benefit dynamic for China should it eventually seek strategic access. However, some alliance practitioners allege that military expansionism is Beijing’s long-term goal. The head of US Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Phillip Davidson recently described the Belt and Road Initiative as “a stalking horse to advance Chinese security concerns,” including for military bases in the PIR.

Recent incidents have fueled such anxieties. In April 2018, reports alleged that Beijing and Port Vila had discussed formalizing military access to Vanuatu’s commercial ports (both countries denied this). In November 2018, Canberra became concerned that Beijing was seeking to co-develop four major ports in Papua New Guinea, including at Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island, concerns which likely spurred the alliance’s partnering with PNG to redevelop Lombrum themselves. And in October 2019, provincial authorities on Tulagi in the Solomon Islands signed an agreement to lease the entire island to a Chinese state-owned company, an agreement which the Solomons’ central government eventually voided. Aside from being the former site of a deep-water naval base in World War II, analysts also speculated that planned airfields nearby could accommodate Chinese fighter aircraft.

Evidently, while China has yet to secure strategic access in the Pacific, alliance policymakers cannot wait until “after the fact” to agree upon appropriate courses of action. Though Admiral Davidson claimed that American and Australian Indo-Pacific strategies both clearly sought to prevent the establishment of Chinese bases in the Pacific, is it unclear whether their respective approaches are sufficiently aligned for the purposes of collective deterrence. The alliance urgently needs to consider whether China’s alleged designs can be deterred or, if not, forge a consensus on how best to mitigate the strategic challenges that could result.

Several options spring to mind, though none are unproblematic. Firstly, Canberra and Washington could seek to preemptively establish their own facilities at strategically important locations. The allies did so in PNG, and some further access in the Solomon Islands seems possible. However, competing with Beijing on the basis of dollar figures alone does not advantage the allies in the long term, and it would thus seem extremely difficult to deter China from seeking regional strategic access if it is determined to do so.

Alternatively, the allies could consider employing grey zone tactics such as sabotage in an attempt to raise the costs of Chinese projects to unacceptable levels, and signal their own intent without resorting to overt escalation. Here, the allies ought to heed the lessons from Beijing’s approach in the South China Sea. Aside from providing sea control and shelter for militia and fishing fleets, recent analysissuggests that Chinese island bases would be far more time- and resource-consuming to neutralize in a conflict than commonly assumed. It is possible to imagine Chinese PIR access points being similarly difficult to dislodge. However, Beijing’s Pacific interests are somewhat peripheral to core concerns closer to home, meaning that Canberra and Washington could contemplate limited preventative—and deniable—action against Chinese projects at a limited cost. Nevertheless, these actions could still risk inadvertent escalation if exposed or poorly executed, and could potentially undermine the allies’ regional political capital, given that these facilities would most likely be commercial or dual-use facilities on a third party’s territory.

Instead, it could prove cheaper to invest in new military capabilities to limit the utility and usability of prospective Chinese facilities. For example, the allies could co-develop anti-ship or other INF-range missile capabilities. Aside from holding local Chinese forces at risk, expanding collaborative research and development—and deployment—would help Australia generate independent strategic effects, and assist the US with addressing a raft of challenges associated with implementing the Indo-Pacific Strategy. That said, it could be too soon for such “strategic fatalism”—the alliance has enduring non-security advantages over China in the region which could yet be leveraged at much lower economic and political cost.

Regardless of the approaches decided upon, deeper alliance discussion on deterrence in the PIR is undoubtedly needed. Hopefully, future Deterrence Dialogues can unpack these complex questions in more detail.

Tom Corben ( is a resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, where he is researching defense cooperation between Australia and the Republic of Korea. Tom was previously with the United States Studies Centre in Sydney, Australia.

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.

Issues & Insights Vol. 20, WP 1 – Maritime Issues in the Indo-Pacific: Building a Shared Vision of “Free and Open”



Pacific Forum, the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS), and Tama University’s Center for Rule-making Strategies, with support from the US Embassy in Japan, organized a conference discussing maritime issues in the Indo-Pacific as they relate to the “Free and Open” concept. The event was hosted by the Center for Rule-making Strategies in Tokyo November 21-22, 2019. Approximately 35 senior officials, scholars, scientists, and security specialists attended in their personal capacity for an off-the-record discussion. The closed-door conference covered an array of maritime challenges including territorial conflicts, erosion of the rule of law, piracy and other criminal activities, unsustainable fishing practices, and environmental destruction. Synchronizing the efforts of uniquely qualified experts, this conference and its initiatives developed important messages for regional and global thinkers.

The conference provided a platform for professionals to address a multitude of growing concerns while creating an environment encouraging creative problem framing and problem solving. Following the conference, the experts in attendance were invited to submit short analytical commentaries for compilation into this volume. Key themes from this conference are outlined below.

There is an increasing pressure on the traditional US-led security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. This pressure stems from many factors, including evolving economic dynamics and maritime security challenges. Middle powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia will have an increasing level of responsibility in shaping the Indo-Pacific region by aligning in these two areas. Japan’s pragmatic approach focuses on strengthening the law enforcement capacities of other regional partners while relying on Official Development Assistance (ODA) to serve as an important foreign policy tool. On this theme, Dr. Stephen Nagy’s piece explores opportunities for maritime cooperation among middle powers in the Indo-Pacific. Dr. Raymond Yamamoto uses the changes in the distribution of Japan’s ODA to demonstrate the Abe administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision is not merely an update to previous ideas such as the Arch of Freedom Prosperity but a unique doctrine tailored to Japan’s current strategic needs. Dr. SATO Yoichiro explores Japan’s FOIP as a strategic approach employed by Japan’s leadership to advance its goals in a region under realignment in response to the People’s Republic of China’s growing economic heft and more threatening posture.

Much of the conversation focused on China maritime activities, which were generally seen as detrimental to a FOIP. In particular, the South China Sea came up as a “flashpoint” or tension front. Dr. OTA Fumio (VADM JMSDF ret.) contrasts Japan’s FOIP concept with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), arguing that—unlike FOIP—BRI is military-oriented, lacks rules, erodes the sovereignty of participants, imposes unsustainable financial burdens, and lacks transparency. Dr. ITO Go’s contribution focuses on Chinese activities in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as exemplifying that nation’s disruptive behavior.

Other discussions focused on the actions that states might take to address the range of regional maritime challenges. After examining China activities in the South China Sea through the lens of Chinese historical analogy, Vivian Ng argues that the US needs to take bold and unanticipated actions if it wants to disrupt current trajectories and seize the initiative. Dr. Asyurah Salleh points out that national competition exacerbates transnational maritime challenges such as environmental destruction. She unpacks the threats associated with fisheries mismanagement, arguing for a regional fishery management organization and other strategic actions while acknowledging international competition in the South China Sea restricts the range of options available. Finally, Margaret Jackson examines energy considerations for the US-Japan alliance in light of challenges to the flow of resources by sea and suggests the need for improved coordination in infrastructure investment and regional cooperation building.

The current approaches to the myriad of maritime concerns in the Indo-Pacific have been insufficient in securing a future in which the gathered experts are confident that a free and open system will be able to sustain regional peace and stability. Security, economics, environmental practices, and governance are fundamental considerations policymakers and the public must consider when developing a responsible maritime strategy. Reflecting the thoughtful discussion at the conference, the articles that follow provide an enlightened and expert perspective on the variety of themes addressed above. We hope our readers will consider new perspectives, revise their own perceptions appropriately, and engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue with other interested individuals.

YL Blog #22: Managing US-China Strategic Competition by Overcoming the Perception Gap


In recent years, the U.S.-China relationship has been undermined by their increasing bilateral economic disputes, the strategic and economic tensions between U.S. and China are escalating, which has caused much concerns across the world. In the United States, many political elites share a narrative of disillusionment with China, which believes that the U.S.’s longstanding policy of “engagement” has failed. Meanwhile in China, interpreting bilateral tensions as containment from the United States is a considerable tendency. From 2017, Trump administration has published National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review, collectively articulated China as a strategic competitor, claims the great power competition is return. Since then, the world has witnessed more confrontational interacts between China and the United States. To many observers, whether the United States and China are in competition is no longer a topic to discuss, and the concern that current competition between the two major powers could escalate into a comprehensive confrontation seems not impossible.

Under such circumstance, it is crucial to develop preventive measures to make sure that U.S.-China relationship will not fall into a comprehensive confrontation. How can both sides cooperate to manage this competition and prevent it from escalating into a more adversarial relationship or conflict? Closing the perception gap between China and the United States could be a fruitful approach.

Establish a meaningful intergovernmental dialogue between China and the United States to address strategic issues should be a priority. Although the United States has long sought such dialogue, Chinese officials are always express it is not the right time (“the conditions are not ripe”), refuse to conduct any official strategic dialogue regardless it is bilateral or multilateral. As many Chinese participants pointed out, the refusal is largely because China processes a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States and Russia, and given China’s no-first-use policy and it’s thinking that nuclear weapon is only for prevent nuclear coercion, opaqueness on nuclear policy has special value in China’s deterrence. There also many different perceptions between China and the United States: while China claims it’s already possesses credible and secure second-strike capability, calls for mutual no first use or mutual no targeting commitment between China and the United States, the United States asks for better understanding on Chinese nuclear thinking and developments, calls for transparency. Consider the lack of mutual trust and understanding between China and the United States, official strategic dialogue could be possible only if compromise made from both sides: Chinese official would need to consider engage to more meaningful, transparent strategic dialogue, while Washington would need to acknowledge that the United States and China are in mutually vulnerable strategic relationship, recognize this premise of strategic stability.

Despite of whether China and the United States could conduct official strategic dialogue, both parties should immediately seek to establish crisis management mechanisms. As a matter of fact, some military to military mechanisms have been established between China and the United States, and achievements have been made: in 2014, China and the United States have signed memorandums of understanding of notice on major military operations as well as codes on unplanned encounters at sea. These documents provide channel for communication during conflicts or crisis, also indicated that despite the tension and dispute, China and the United States could conduct pragmatic cooperation in certain areas. Such mechanisms should be well maintained and fully utilized. But existing mechanisms are far from enough, more such mechanism are needed. Consider China has maritime dispute with many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and the United States has security commitment with its allies in this region, mechanisms on preventing conflict triggered by third party are in special need.

In recent years, deep distrust and suspicion increasingly plague the bilateral relationship, the worrisome trend of “prepare for the worst scenario” is emerging in both China and the United States. Such distrust has been amplified by information asymmetry, and the two major power is falling into a dangerous action-misinterpret

 -reaction loop. As an outcome of China’s rise, China is increasingly aggressive on preserve its rights, while the United States views any revise of current international system as challenge to its supremacy, and its current policies seems focus on slowing down China’s development and trying to decoupling China from international market. But is this the only way? Find common interest and work together could be an alternative approach. Since China says it’s not interested in pursue supremacy, claims its seek for peaceful development is not a trick, but a matter of strategy, it may need to adopt a more transparent, fair approach to implement its geo-economic initiatives, and the United States may need to resist its instinctual respond, try to shape China’s behavior by cooperate in certain areas such as climate change and global trade reform. Indeed, China’s rise poses challenge to the current U.S led system, but it should be viewed as an opportunity for global governance rather than nightmare.

I’m truly grateful to Pacific Forum for offer me this opportunity to engage this strategic dialogue. From the dialogue, my personal takeaway is both satisfactory and frustrating. The satisfaction is because I noticed participants from both sides are genuinely willing to address the issue on bilateral strategic relationship, the frustration is from a glimpse of how huge the perception gap between China and U.S, and this truly worries me. I do believe that by working together China and the United States could build a just, harmonic, sustainable international system, but the path to it is bound to fitful.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.