When the Philippines announced its intent in January 2013 to file a case against China at a tribunal in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, many ASEAN countries remained silent or even worried out loud that Manila was “rolling the dice” and would be the subject of Beijing’s wrath. The mood in Southeast Asia has changed. In 2015 there is likely to be a further coalescing of support among ASEAN countries for the Philippines’ case.
What has changed is that Southeast Asian governments’ trust in Beijing and its South China Sea policies has eroded. This is because of Chinese actions and a growing concern about China’s intentions from a Southeast Asian middle class that is rapidly expanding and becoming more politically active.
When the Philippines announced its case, there was still strong hope among ASEAN policymakers that China would revert to the regional “charm offensive” it initiated during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990’s. That initiative ended in 2009, when China submitted its nine-dash line claim to a substantial part of the South China Sea to a UN body. Still, ASEAN government’s hoped China would back off its robust sovereignty claims and focus on economic partnership in the region.
Those hopes evaporated as China continued to assert itself by seizing Scarborough Shoal, unilaterally declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, laying claim to a submerged feature in Malaysian waters, and placing a China National Offshore Oil Corporation rig on Vietnam’s continental shelf. CSIS polling of Southeast Asian elites in early 2014 shows a distinct trend of growing distrust of China and concern that China represents a future strategic and security threat.
ASEAN governments, impressed by the Philippines’ strong commitment to see its case through, have started to share publicly what they have been saying privately over the last couple years, namely that they too are concerned by Beijing’s apparent unwillingness to abide by international law in regard to the South China Sea disputes. These concerns have a growing political base that is seeking more input into policy in general, including foreign and national security policy around Southeast Asia. Even Singapore, once able to formulate an intensely practical foreign policy, finds itself more influenced by domestic political opinion.
ASEAN support for the Philippines’ case has started to become more apparent and this is a trend we can expect to increase in 2015. Vietnam has filed a statement of interest with the court, largely in support of the Philippines’ position, and political leaders in Indonesia and Malaysia have begun to express concern about Chinese actions and intent in the South China Sea. More ASEAN voices will be heard as the award in the Philippine case, now expected in the latter half of 2015, approaches.