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ASEAN requires more robust institutions to counter China

The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague invalidated China’s claims to the South China Sea, based on its ‘nine-dash’ line, under the UNCLOS. However, the Philippines faces a dilemma in choosing between negotiating with China alone or seeking support from its ally, the United States, which could escalate tensions and trigger Chinese concerns about containment by proxy. ASEAN unity, facilitated by effective cooperation and regional institutions, could offer a solution by empowering smaller Asian nations to assert their collective interests against larger powers and defend economic openness through mechanisms like RCEP.

Despite the legal clarity provided by the PCA ruling, the Duterte administration missed the chance to build a diplomatic coalition within ASEAN to encourage China’s compliance. With President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. now at odds with the Duterte political clan, there’s a shift towards a more assertive stance on Philippine maritime claims.

Manila faces a tough choice regarding its territorial disputes with China. Pursuing bilateral negotiations risks conceding ground to a more powerful adversary, especially if China views this as a matter of national credibility or security. On the other hand, involving the United States risks exacerbating tensions and reinforcing China’s perception of containment.

Given the widespread belief in Manila that China is unwilling to negotiate sincerely, aligning with the United States seems appealing. However, this risks escalating tensions and undermining regional stability, making it harder for ASEAN to collectively challenge China’s disregard for the 2016 PCA ruling.

The dominance of these suboptimal options in Manila’s policy decisions reflects a lack of institutional avenues for leveraging the collective political influence of Asia’s smaller and middle powers. These nations share an urgent interest in holding China accountable to rules protecting their interests, but individually have little incentive to antagonize Beijing or involve the US in this dispute.

The South China Sea crisis underscores the need for better options for Asia’s smaller and medium powers, beyond being subject to power imbalances in their relations with China or inadvertently escalating tensions by involving external powers like the US.

The post is based on the content of an article in the “East Asia Forum”



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