China and ASEAN states have clashed in the resource-rich South China Sea for decades and despite a
cooperation pact signed in 2002, recent developments such as China’s land reclamation and military
build-up in the region has alarmed onlookers worldwide.
Undoubtedly, ASEAN-China relations have taken a hit. A joint statement released by the ASEAN
meeting of foreign ministers in May 2014 did not criticise China directly, but expressed “a serious
concern” over China’s aggressive behaviour (Lam, 2015, p. 221). More recently, in April 2015, ASEAN
released a statement regarding China’s land reclamation projects in the Spratly islands, claiming that
it has “eroded trust and confidence”, and may even “undermine peace, security and stability in the
region” (Menon & Mogato, 2015). This is ASEAN’s strongest response to China yet, and China
retorted by saying that they were “gravely concerned” by the ASEAN statement (Tiezzi, 2015).
ASEAN has gone further in contemplating a US proposed “freeze” on all land reclamation works in
the region which China is unsurprisingly objected to (Tiezzi, 2015).
In addition to verbal spats, a tangible effect of the deterioration in relations is ASEAN hesitance in
China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative. China describes the scheme as a “win-win” for ASEAN and
China, however, according to a commentator at the Asian Medias Forum, he had “not seen or heard
one ASEAN member coming out publicly to support the [project]” due to a lack of trust caused by
the events in the South China Sea (Yoon, 2015).
The ASEAN response to Chinese activity shows a weakening in relations, and with alleged
militarisation of the conflict, some observers are expecting the worse. However, to examine the
China-ASEAN relations purely through the South China Sea conflict is one dimensional, one must
view the situation in a larger context to accurately judge the current state of relations.
China has categorised its foreign policy as a “peaceful rise” that promotes a “harmonious world”,
and has largely shown the world that it is an advocate of multilateralism and diplomacy (Lanteigne,
2013, pp. 4-13). In 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed to foster a “community of common
destiny” with Southeast Asia and ASEAN would be first region to share the economic benefits of a
growing China (Lam, 2015, p. 218). On the South China Sea dispute, Xi emphasised China’s desire for
peaceful solutions through diplomacy (Lam, 2015, p. 218) and, China will be hosting ASEAN defence
ministers in Beijing in October this year to discuss defence and security cooperation (Parameswaran,
Economically, the benefits of this relationship are evident. China was the first state to form a free
trade agreement with ASEAN in 2010, and now, China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner while
ASEAN is China’s third largest trading partner (Lam, 2015, p. 219). Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is keen
to increase trade to a figure of US$1 trillion, more than double the 2012 figure (Lam, 2015, p. 219).
China’s role in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis cannot be forgotten. China helped stabilise Southeast
Asia in midst of economic chaos and was also a major contributor to the subsequent founding of the
ASEAN plus Three group (Lanteigne, 2013, pp. 4-13). As recently as November 2014, China offered
US$20 billion in loans to ASEAN for regional infrastructure development, in addition to US$3 billion
already committed to the China-ASEAN Investment Cooperation Fund. A further US$480 million in
aid was contributed to reduce poverty in Southeast Asia.
Furthermore, all ten ASEAN members joined the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank in
March. Malaysian Foreign Minister Hanadzlah said that ASEAN is willing to fully cooperate with the
initiative (Hunt, 2015). China and ASEAN are also working to build a transnational railway from
Kunming to Singapore, with work beginning in November (Xue, 2015).
Therefore, despite the disputes, ASEAN has gained much from warm ties with China and ASEAN’s
lucrative projects with China will continue. The only exception to this is the Maritime Silk Road
initiative, and is this unsurprising given that the project would be facilitated in currently disputed
On its current trajectory, ASEAN will reap even larger benefits through their relationship with China
in the future. This is perhaps China’s plan, to incentivise the situation to persuade ASEAN into
overlooking their South China Sea activities, and this tactic seems to working in the sense that
overall relations are still largely warm despite recent developments in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea dispute is not a simple ‘ASEAN vs China’ one. Each ASEAN state has its own
interests, and have clashed before in instances such as the Thailand-Cambodia border disputes (BBC,
2013) or the Pedra Branca dispute between Singapore and Malaysia (BBC, 2008). In the South China
Sea, several ASEAN states all have overlapping claims (McDevitt, 2015) and different interests when
dealing with China’s expansion.
Some ASEAN states (that have little to lose in the disputes) such as Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia
actually support China in their claims, with Laos and Cambodia responsible for China not being
mentioned by name in any ASEAN statements in 2014 (Lam, 2015, p. 221). Meanwhile, while calling
on the parties of the disputed region to break “the vicious cycle” of squabbling (Shen & Alexander,
2015), Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee also maintained Singapore’s neutrality and support of China’s
view that claims should be settled bilaterally, while ASEAN as a whole should be neutral (Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, 2012).
Malaysia, despite having claims in the South China Sea overlapped by China’s nine-dotted line,
prefers to maintain its good and profitable relationship with China by instead solving the matter
bilaterally (Parameswaran, 2015). Indonesia has released a string of conflicting statements on the
matter and despite having part of its territory claimed by China, is largely on the fence (Chang,
The two ASEAN states that most affected by the dispute are Vietnam and Philippines due to their
geographical proximity to China’s expansion. While China’s relations with other ASEAN states are
likely to grow, it is Sino-Vietnam and Sino-Philippine relations have worsened. A survey has shown
that 91% of Filipinos are concerned with the dispute (Viray, 2015) and the government, unlike
ASEAN press releases, has not been shy in publically denouncing China’s activity, last month
branding China’s vocal support of peace in the region as “deceitful rhetoric” (Gady, 2015). Following
Chinese militarisation of the area, Vietnam and Philippines have both stepped up militarily, with
Vietnam looking to the US to expand its armed forces (Tegler, 2015), and Philippines undergoing
refurbishment of a military base in Subic Bay (Reuters, 2015).
Vietnam and Philippines are also keen to garner support from outside the region, much to China’s
dismay. Vietnam is forming a partnership with Japan (Khanh, 2015), while naval and oil agreements
with India are already underway (Florcruz, 2014). Meanwhile, the Philippines is working on
increasing US military presence in the area. China has consistently warned against outside
interference, and these developments are likely to worsen ties. Vietnam and the Philippines are also
negotiating a cooperation pact (Calleja, 2015), suggesting that they will not partake in the bilateral
dialogue that China desires and instead work together.
Breaking down the dispute shows that individual ASEAN states have different interests and
therefore, prefer to exact different responses to Chinese aggression. Many ASEAN states do not wish
to see their lucrative relationship with China turn sour, especially when the disputes do not concern
Overall, ASEAN has become more cautious with China, but relations between the two parties have
only been hindered rather than dramatically worsened. Meanwhile, with Vietnam and the
Philippines left to fend off Chinese aggression by themselves, we can expect relations between China
and the pair to deteriorate rapidly.
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