China’s expansive and accelerated construction activities in the South China Sea have elicited growing criticism from across the region and beyond. While some countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, are primarily worried over the impact of China’s reclamation activities on their maritime claims in the area, other countries, from Singapore to Japan and the United States (U.S.), are particularly concerned over freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

During the recently-concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, regional leaders expressed their concern over how China’s reclamation activities “has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine [authors’ emphasis] peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.” It was an unusually strongly-worded statement to reaffirm the regional body’s commitment to “maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea.”

President Obama was even blunter in his reaction, accusing China of violating international norms and “using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” Concerned over potential threats to unimpeded navigation and trade across the South China Sea, a Japanese official went so far as warning: “We have to show China that it doesn’t own the sea.” Beyond rhetorical condemnations, the real challenge, however, is to devise an effective, multilateral strategy to alter China’s behavior, particularly its decision to swiftly build facts on the waters at the expense of regional security.

The ASEAN should seriously contemplate the option of joint peacekeeping patrols in the South China Sea, possibly with American logistical support, and push for the expeditious conclusion of a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. Thanks to their newly revised bilateral defense guidelines, the U.S. and Japan, meanwhile, can also jointly pursue more robust counter-provocation measures in the area,

China’s Belligerence

China’s actions don’t only violate the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC), which discourages claimant states from unilaterally altering the status quo, but also international law, which bars the permanent alteration of disputed features.

China has left limited room for a peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the disputes. Unwilling to be bound by any legalistic document, China has repeatedly dragged its foot on negotiating even just the guidelines of a COC in the South China Sea, constantly advising patience while swiftly building facts on the ground.  China has also consistently opposed third party arbitration of the maritime disputes in the area, effectively nullifying international law — and arbitration bodies under its aegis — as a potential avenue for the resolution of the disputes.

Moreover, by conducting ever-expanding para-military patrols, deploying nuclear submarines, and establishing large-scale airstrips and garrisons in adjacent waters, China has transformed largely symbolic sovereignty spats into an increasingly militarized territorial showdown. Ironically, all of this is happening during the “Year of China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation”.

Leveraging its economic preponderance in the region, China has shown little patience for any kind of criticism from its Southeast Asian counterparts. In response to ASEAN’s statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman accused an “individual country” [Read: the Philippines] of hijacking ASEAN’s agenda by “regionalizing” supposedly purely bilateral disputes, while dubiously criticizing some ASEAN countries for “carrying out reclamations on the Chinese islands [the Spratlys]…” China doesn’t even recognize the claims of other countries as well as the self-evidently multilateral nature of its maritime disputes with several neighboring countries.

A Multilateral Maritime Response in the South China Sea

Overeager to benefit from China’s economic largesse, ASEAN has collectively failed to ensure that greater economic engagement with China goes hand in hand with stable, rule-based security relations in the South China Sea. But ASEAN can still re-assert its relevance by moving forward on three fronts.

First, it should adopt an “ASEAN-X” decision-making formula in the realm of maritime security in order to ensure the regional agenda is not held hostage by few veto-players (unduly influenced by China). Under this formula, which has been employed quite successfully in negotiating trade-related agreements within the ASEAN, Southeast Asian countries can move ahead with major decisions vis-à-vis the South China Sea based on the will of the majority. Since most ASEAN countries agree on the necessity of ensuring freedom of navigation, preventing further escalation, and resolution of the territorial spats based on international law in the disputed waters, there is greater hope for a diplomatic breakthrough under an alternative decision making principle.

Second, the regional body should move ahead with at least establishing a Code of Conduct among its own members, then pressure China and other external powers to sign up. While it is preferable that any COC applies to all members regarding all territorial and maritime-related issues in the region, it would be wise and more expedient to at least start with common rules of the road among South China Sea (active) claimant states such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. (This was more or less how ASEAN advocated and mainstreamed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.)

Lastly, ASEAN members should seriously consider joint peacekeeping patrols in the South China Sea, a measure that has been endorsed by the current ASEAN chairman, Malaysia. The concept was originally proposed by Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the US 7th Fleet, who stated the U.S. Navy is willing to provide necessary support for multilateral peacekeeping patrols in the South China Sea. Since 2004, several ASEAN members (i.e., Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore) have participated in Malacca Strait Patrols (MSP), collectively guarding a key international waterway against maritime piracy and other threats. So there is quasi-precedence.

To support efforts at ensuring freedom of navigation in the area, American defense officials have also proposed the establishment of an International Maritime Operations Center (IMOC) in Indonesia, which could provide necessary support for multilateral patrol operations in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. A potentially game-changing development, however, is the growing indication that Japan, equipped with Asia’s most modern navy, might soon join the fray.

Earlier this year, certain American defense officials, namely Vice Admiral Thomas,  requested Japanese Marine Self Defense Forces (MSDF) to contribute to joint patrols in the South China Sea. Deeply worried by the prospect of a Chinese de facto domination of and possible imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the area, the Abe administration could leverage the new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines to push for a more robust Japanese presence in the South China Sea.

Obviously, operationalizing any of these proposals risks huge domestic and international backlash. For starters, Japan will have to overcome stiff domestic resistance to any pro-active reassertion of Japanese maritime prowess in international waters, while China will certainly oppose multilateral cooperation between ASEAN, Japan, and the U.S. in the South China Sea disputes. Nevertheless, given the paucity of existing mechanisms, it is high time to consider bold, new measures to prevent a further deterioration in the regional maritime disputes.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.