Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: With Tensions Simmering, ASEAN Foreign Ministers Weigh in on South China Sea

Lawfare Staff
Friday, March 4, 2016, 1:06 PM

ASEAN ‘Seriously Concerned’ By China’s South China Sea Behavior

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) flag (Photo:

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ASEAN ‘Seriously Concerned’ By China’s South China Sea Behavior

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) flag (Photo:

In a move that will be seen by some as a vindication of February’s U.S.-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit, the Chairman of ASEAN released a statement on Saturday expressing “serious concern over recent and ongoing developments” in the South China Sea and lamenting “land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area”—an all-but-explicit reference to the PRC’s recent military deployments and island-construction efforts. The declaration decried such actions for having “eroded trust and confidence” and for having “increased tensions” in the region. ASEAN’s rhetorical escalation came at the end of the economic and security community’s Foreign Ministers Retreat in Vientiane, Laos. During the summit, the foreign ministers also called for the “expeditious establishment” of a Code of Conduct, insisted on “the peaceful resolution of [maritime] disputes” in accordance with UNCLOS principles, and reaffirmed ASEAN’s centrality principle, which requires members to project a common front on issues of regional import.

Nina Hachigian, the U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, suggested that the pronouncement served as proof that “the Sunnylands momentum was clearly maintained in the retreat.” However, Beijing read the tealeaves differently. When asked about the summit at a press conference, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated that the meeting “showed that the majority of ASEAN countries do not agree with hyping up the South China Sea issue.” He added that maritime disputes are “an issue between China and some ASEAN countries, rather than an issue between China and ASEAN.”

On Monday, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan personally conveyed ASEAN’s South China Sea concerns to PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a previously scheduled visit to Beijing. Adding a public face to the lobbying effort, Dr. Balakrishnan published an editorial in China Daily in which he asserted, “All countries . . . whose ships or aircraft use the South China Sea, have a legitimate interest in upholding the right of freedom of navigation and overflight.” He also expressed Singapore’s desire to more quickly develop a Code of Conduct and proposed an expanded Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to prevent maritime clashes.

Elsewhere, Washington and Beijing continued a weeks-long war of words over the South China Sea. Responding directly to U.S. Admiral Harry Harris’s recent comments before Congress and at the Pentagon, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei urged the PACOM Commander and other U.S. officials to stop “playing up the situation,” according to China Military Online. Additionally, Mr. Hong interpreted the Admiral’s remarks as a signal that “this official . . . intends to smear China’s legitimate and reasonable actions in the South China Sea and [is] sowing discord. He is finding an excuse for U.S. maritime hegemony and muscle-flexing on the sea.”

For its part, the United States pressed China to extend its non-militarization pledge to the entire South China Sea, rather than limiting it to the Spratly archipelago. During the same speech, U.S. National Security Council adviser Dan Kritenbrink also suggested that the upcoming merits decision in the Philippines v. PRC maritime arbitration case “will be binding on both parties.” Additionally, during prepared remarks on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated that China’s artificial island construction and militarization in the South China Sea “have the potential to increase the risk of miscalculation and conflict among claimant states” and warned that “[s]pecific actions will have specific consequences.”

In other news…

United States

On Wednesday, during an official visit to India, Admiral Harry Harris announced that the United States plans to hold joint naval exercises with India and Japan off the northern coast of the Philippines. Although not referring to China explicitly, the Admiral criticized “countries [that] seek to bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion” in his speech at the Raisina Dialogue. He also proposed resurrecting an informal quadrilateral security group uniting the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia in what China previously dubbed a “mini-NATO.”


During a regularly scheduled press conference late last week, a PRC Defense Ministry spokesman left open the possibility that China would implement an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, noting that such a measure “is within the sovereign rights of a country.” Separately, General Wang Jiaocheng suggested that the “foremost mission” of his newly-created Southern Theater Command “is to safeguard [Chinese] rights and interests in the South China Sea.” He added that “No country will be allowed to use any excuse or action to threaten China’s sovereignty and safety.” Notwithstanding recent tensions in the Asian Pacific, however, Beijing announced that it will participate in this year’s Rim of the Pacific multilateral joint exercise.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the PRC’s first-ever law regulating the exploration and exploitation of deep seabed resources. The new legislation seeks to ensure peaceful exploration and protect the environment, and it will come into force on May 1.


On Wednesday, the Philippine press reported that Chinese forces had taken over Jackson Atoll, a PH-held feature and rich fishing ground in the Spratly chain, and several Filipino fishermen claimed that the Chinese ships had prevented them from entering the area. The PRC vessels ultimately vacated the atoll without incident, as Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario announced later on Wednesday. Local Philippine authorities noted that this atoll is on the route frequently used to resupply Philippine troops on Thitu Island. PRC Foreign Minister Hong Lei confirmed that PLA ships were dispatched to the disputed feature but stated that their mission was to remove an abandoned vessel to avoid damage to the marine environment.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) rebuffed PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s accusation last week that the Manila had committed a “political provocation” by launching an arbitral claim against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Mr. Wang also suggested that the resort to arbitration constituted a violation of the 2002 PRC-ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Manila insisted that, before bringing the claim, it held “countless meetings with China to try to address the issue between the two of us to no avail.” The DFA also called on Beijing to respect the PCA’s upcoming merits decision and not attempt to place itself “above the law.”


After meeting with top diplomats from Australia and India, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki expressed “strong concerns about moves to unilaterally change the status quo that would lead to destabilization” in the South China Sea. Days later, Tokyo signed a framework agreement to supply defense equipment and technology to the Philippines. Though particular resources were not specified, early reports indicate that the deal may include five leased TC-90 training airplanes and surveillance equipment, among other military hardware. This pact was made possible by Japan’s 2014 move to lift a self-imposed ban on exporting defense equipment.


The Straits Times dug deep into the 2016 Defence White Paper that Australia released last week and found a “delicately worded clue” on page 46 regarding Canberra’s position on conducting naval (versus airborne) freedom of navigation patrols. As compared to the last white paper from 2013, the new report includes the following: “The government is committed to working with the United States and like-minded partners to maintain the rules-based order by making practical and meaningful military contributions where it is in our interest to do so.” In response to the white paper, PRC Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Wu Qian warned Australia to avoid a “cold war mentality,” and he refuted the report’s account of PRC actions in the South China Sea. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying delivered a similar critique of the Australian report.


On Monday, PRC President Xi Jinping received Hoang Bin Quan, head of Vietnam’s Communist Party Central Committee, in a bid to heal the growing rift over competing claims in the South China Sea. President Xi stressed that both countries—and their communist parties—share a “common destiny.” According to ChinaTopix, both sides vowed to maintain peace in the disputed waters and agreed that strong party-to-party ties would help to improve bilateral relations.


Late last week, the Taiwanese Coast Guard Administration released a report on force deployment in the South China Sea. Of the Coast Guard’s 10,421 uniformed personnel, 255 are stationed on Pratas Island and 168 are in the Spratly Islands. The total number of Coast Guard personnel (including non-uniformed support) is down from a high of 19,915 in 2000.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

The New York Times has posted a visually stunning feature on PRC land-reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. Also on the subject of artificial islands, Forbes contributor Ralph Jennings reveals which Southeast Asian nation holds the title for the greatest number of reclaimed islets in the region (spoiler alert: it’s a communist country but not China). AMTI’s Do Viet Cuong offers some additional insight into the South China Sea strategy of this mystery country (Vietnam), in the wake of its recent National Party Congress and the reelection of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

Late last week, Daniel Kritenbrink of the U.S. National Security Council reflected on the outcomes of February’s U.S.-ASEAN summit, and CSIS has kindly posted a video of the talk. Taking a broader perspective on ASEAN, the East Asia Forum’s Paul Dibbs considers the strategic value of the economic and security community.

A commission of experts from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and CSIS called on America and Japan to stand up a joint military headquarters to protect both Okinawa and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands for Chinese aggression. Meanwhile, the Lowry Institute’s Peter Layton advises on how the United States can retake the initiative in the South China Sea.

On Wednesday, the U.S.-China Commission released a report evaluating the effectiveness of the PRC’s East China Sea ADIZ and the potential declaration of a new ADIZ in the South China Sea. Beijing has “bulked up” its maritime courts in an effort to influence international maritime rules development, according to SPC Monitor. And international law expert Alison Pert assails China for undermining the UN Charter system through its actions in the South China Sea.

Lauren Dickey argues that Washington must set aside its tradition of strategic ambiguity and clarify the extent to which America’s Taiwan Relations Act extends to Taipei’s claims in the South China Sea. Taking a similar position, The Diplomat’s Kerry Brown stresses that American strategic clarity is critical, as Chinese assertiveness with respect to its maritime claims and Hong Kong might suggest a willingness on the part of Xi Jinping to make a play for Taiwan.

Elsewhere at The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi breaks down what Beijing’s deployments to Woody Island do (and do not) mean. Dr. Patrick Cronin explains how the U.S. should craft its response to China’s recent actions in the maritime domain. And U.S. Navy Commander Jonathan Odom debunks a popular misconception that freedom of navigation operations and innocent passage are mutually exclusive concepts.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please feel free to email us with breaking news or relevant documents.

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