The 35th ASEAN Summit, the 14th East Asia Summit and other related summits (ASEAN +1, ASEAN +3), henceforth referred to as the "Summits", will be held in Bangkok, Thailand in the upcoming October 31 – November 04 period. There are expected to be 11 Summits for leaders of ASEAN countries and between ASEAN and its partners, which include the United Nations, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, India, etc. Approximately 44 documents will be approved during these Summits, covering many important areas of cooperation. Theceremony forASEAN Chairmanship Handover from Thailand to Vietnam will also take place in this period.
These summits are being held in the context of volatile global and regional situation, particularly the complicated situation in the East Sea, with the risk of conflict rising due to the increase of China’s activities in the East Sea: illegally occupying Vietnam’s Paracel and Spratly Islands, continuously consolidating and militarizing artificial islands, or blatantly declaring no-fishing zones in the area, etc. China also allegedly blocked Malaysia’s oil and gas exploration in the East Seain May; sunk a Philippine fishing vessel in June, and most recently sent the Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey fleetto operate illegallywithin Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf to impose the illegal “nine-dash line” claim, occupying 80% of the area in the East Sea.
China's actions constitute a clear violation of international law in these waters and cause great security concerns for Southeast Asian countries. First, the legal framework for peace and security in the East Sea, as well as the long-standing general principlesfor freedom of navigation, is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Permanent Court of Arbitration constituted under Annex VII of UNCLOS in La Hague in 2016 ruled that "China's nine-dash line has no legal basis", "there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’".
Second, China is a signatory of UNCLOS as well as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). According to these two documents, any dispute or conflict in Southeast Asia or the East Sea must be resolved peacefully through dialogue. However, China's actions have shown to becompletely against the commitment. China utilizes the "gray zone" tactics to mobilize multiple forces to continuously harass, pressure, and coerce other countries to accept the demand thatcountries in the regionmust cooperate withChina when exploiting marine resources. China’s aim is to exclude all other countries from the East Sea dispute and be the sole decision-maker.
Thirdly, since 2017, China has proposed the "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era", which reiterates and highlights "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" in the effort to build global relations with countries around the world, which includes the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Therefore, China’s recent acts of consolidating and militarizing artificial islands, preventing the exploitation of oil, gas and natural resources by sovereign states in the East Sea and sending the Haiyang Dizhi 8 to infringe upon Vietnam's waters have been evaluated by many international scholars as a renouncement to principles that China has pledged to the international community.
However, China, with its overwhelming military and economic strength, on the one hand "bullies" the ASEAN member states in order to carry out the seizure of islands and entities in the East Sea, and on the otherseeks to influence and "overshadow" other members of ASEAN. As a result, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in 2012 failedto issue a Joint Communiquedue to not being able to find common ground in identifying and handling tensions in the East Seabecause of China's actions.
How ASEAN will harmonize the interests of each country and the interests of the bloc in the resolution of the "hotspot" in the East Sea will be a mutual concern at theseSummits. According to Dr. Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore: “Unless there is a firm international response against Chinese actions in Vanguard Bank, there could be similar repeats in the coming years simply because Beijing realises to its glee that coercion pays.It will thereby embolden not only China, but other potential state actors in the region or elsewhere, to normalise coercion as the standard toolkit of statecraft, where might makes right, increasing the risk of instability in the region."
Members of the ASEAN Community should be fully aware that participating in resolving disputes and preventing conflicts in the East Sea is both a responsibility and a strategic benefit of this organization as well as each member country, because all countries in Southeast Asia directly benefit or receive benefits from the special geopolitical position of the East Sea. This will help achieve three goals: promote the development of the ASEAN Political - Security Community (APSC); contribute to preventing ASEAN and its member countries from falling into the geopolitical spiral of conflict with major countries while maintaining ASEAN's central role in the regional structure; increase the attractiveness and effectiveness of ASEAN and its member countries in expanding cooperation with external partners. Therefore, at the upcoming Summits, ASEAN countries need to provide a clear viewpoint on the opposition to acts of militarization and activities that threaten the legal economic activities of the countries in the East Sea area; emphasize that all sovereignty claims must be based on the legal basis of international law; reaffirming the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the East Sea and the peaceful settlement of disputes under international law.
In addition, ASEAN needs to strongly raise the issue of maintaining peace in the East Sea at international conferences and forums, and at the same time promote the signing of the Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC)with China on the basis ofensuring the interests of stakeholders to build a platform for resolving maritime disputes. COC will be the leading legal basis, an important factor that contributes to preventing the risk of conflict and war, ensuring the maintenance of peace, stability and security for the East Sea in particular, as well as the Asia – Pacific region and the world at large.
Moreover, ASEAN also needs to promote "internationalization" of the East Sea issue because this is considered the second most important sea lane of the world; it plays a vital role in strategic geography, national security, maritime transportation and economy not only for all countries in the region but also for the whole Asia - Pacific. Therefore, if the East Sea is controlled by one or a group of alliance countries, it will seriously affect the security, political and economic prosperity of the region as well as the world.
The international community, particularly the United States-Japan-Australia and Great Britain-France-Germany have issued a joint statement criticizing actions that change the status quo and escalate tension in disputed areas in the East Sea. The United States specifically criticized China in a statement on July 20, 2019, entitled "Chinese Coercion on Oil and Gas Activity in the East Sea", stating that "China’s growing pressure on ASEAN countries to accept Code of Conduct (COC) provisions that seek to restrict their right to partner with third party companies or countries further reveal its intent to assert control over oil and gas resources in the East Sea"and calling China's actions "bullying". Similarly, ASEAN needs to continue calling for the support of the international community for the issue of freedom of navigation and of the air in the East Sea and the resolution of maritime disputes by peaceful means.
ASEAN's solidarity and unity need to be built on the basis of international legal standards as well as responsibility for peace, stability and security in the region and the world. Therefore, theseupcoming Summitsbear great significance: they are not only an opportunity forleaders of ASEAN and of partner countries to share ideas and discuss courses of cooperation in order to promote the ASEAN Community; maintain sustainable growth and economic integration, but also an opportunity for members of the bloc to work together to address the challenges of maintaining a peaceful and stable environment in the region and strengthening solidarity within the bloc. In addition, they can also deepen ASEAN's relations and effectiveness in cooperating with partners, respond to emerging challenges, as well as promote ASEAN's central role in the regional structure