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ASEAN finally pushes back on China’s sea claims

MANILA – In a sign of rising resistance to China’s Covid-19 strategic opportunism, the typically tight-lipped Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc has articulated a tougher stance on intensifying South China Sea disputes. 

In a major departure from its notoriously anodyne statements, ASEAN has “reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones.”

It marks the first time that the regional body has explicitly identified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the sole legal basis to resolve maritime and territorial disputes in the region. Regional leaders participated in the summit remotely online due to Covid-19 related travel restrictions.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines all have disputes with China in the contested maritime area. Taiwan is also a rival claimant but is not a member of ASEAN. 

The regional body referred to international law more vaguely as a basis to manage the disputes, never ruling out alternative principles and mechanisms to address the issue. By all accounts, China prefers a negotiated agreement that does not rely on UNCLOS.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addresses regional leaders during the ASEAN Summit, held online due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in Hanoi, June 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Luong Thai Linh

But now, Southeast Asian countries are openly rejecting any bid by China to adopt alternative legal principles, including its controversial “historic rights” claims, as a basis of negotiating any conflict management regime in the contested sea. 

The bloc’s shift is likely due to the determined efforts of current rotating chairman Vietnam, which has sought to mobilize regional unity on the disputes despite the pandemic’s disruption to holding regional summits. 

Earlier this year, senior Vietnamese officials told this author that Hanoi is committed to ensuring ASEAN centrality and continued strategic relevance in managing one of the most contentious geopolitical conflicts in the region. 

“We have to work with everybody [towards an optimal consensus],” said Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh, former Vietnamese envoy to Washington and a current advisor on the country’s ASEAN chairmanship. 

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