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Early this week, Indonesia sent a letter to United Nation secretary-general António Guterres opposing Beijing’ claims in the South China Sea - Photo: Special

JAKARTA (TheInsiderStories) – The ASEAN countries look to maintain their ties with China despite the United States’ (US) full-throated backing of an international ruling dismissing China’ claims to nearly all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia have been so long overlapping China on its vast claim over the water.

“The great powers, as they escalate their rivalry, will woo us into their side. But we will advance our own national interest,” said President Rodrigo Duterte’ spokesman, Harry Roque, as quoted from Philippine News Agency on Wednesday (07/15).

He said while the Philippines stands by the 2016 ruling against China, “this is not the sum total of our relations”. “We will just have to agree to disagree. We will proceed with our bilateral relations with China,” he said.

He explained the Philippines does not want to rock the boat and would rather seek an end to disputes with China through venues like ASEAN and mechanisms like a “code of conduct” on resolving maritime rows. The Philippines is contesting China’ claims over waters it considers part of its exclusive economic zone. China’ vast claims also overlap those of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

In recent months, Beijing has sunk Vietnamese fishing vessels, sent an armed flotilla to harass Malaysian offshore energy exploration, and wielded maritime militia to surround Philippine outposts.

Beijing has further militarized its artificial islands in the Spratlys with new aircraft deployments. It has announced unilateral fishing bans. It has conducted destabilizing military exercises in contested waters around disputed features. And it increasingly uses its artificial islands as bases for harassment operations – to curtail access of ASEAN coastal states to offshore oil, gas, and fisheries.

On Monday Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted that with the joint efforts of China and ASEAN countries, the situation in the South China Sea has generally remained stable. But, he said, the US “out of its own geopolitical needs, worries only if the South China Sea is not chaotic”.

Malaysia is also unlikely to “become very gung-ho and push forward and confront China”, Universiti Malaya’ Institute of China Studies director Ngeow Chow-Bing told The Straits Times. “The US statement is a formal expression of what Washington has already been practicing for years,” he said.

Hanoi-based analyst Ha Hoang Hop said Vietnam also does not expect the US’ pivot to make any difference on the ground.

“China has exercised strong control in the South China Sea. The US will continue to exercise limited FONOPS (freedom of navigation operations) and possibly take other actions. Even though the risk of military conflict is higher, I expect China and the US to hedge these risks,” he said.

Indonesia, which is not a claimant state but has clashed with China over fishing rights around the northern islands of Natuna, said its position remains “firm and consistent”. Indonesia’ interest in the South China Sea remains the same – it seeks to maintain peace and security in the South China Sea and the broader region. Indonesia still emphasizes the need for peaceful dispute resolution based on international law.

Last month, four years after the Hague’ 2016 South China Sea tribunal ruling, Indonesia put forward a formal diplomatic note to the UN. This was in response to Malaysia’ 2019 continental shelf submission that objected to China’ maritime claims in the South China Sea, including the area bounded by China’ nine-dash line. It said that ‘Indonesia is not bound by any claims made in contravention to international law’.

“Any country’ support for Indonesia’ rights concerning Natuna’ waters is normal, as our position is based on UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Seas),” said Teuku Faizasyah, spokesman for Indonesia’ Foreign Affairs Ministry. UNCLOS delineates exclusive economic zones that countries may claim, based on land features.

Previously, the Donald Trump administration has escalated its response against China by rejecting nearly all of Beijing’ claims in the South China Sea. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday the US would treat Beijing’ pursuit of resources in the dispute-rife South China Sea as illegal, ramping up pressure on another front.

Pompeo explicitly sided with ASEAN nations, after years of the US saying that it took no position on the merits of disputes between China and each of its ASEAN neighbors. In line with the 2016 ruling, Pompeo said Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal both “fall fully under the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction”.

The US now rejects Beijing’ claims in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, Lucania Shoals off Malaysia, waters considered in Brunei’ exclusive economic zone and Natuna Besar off Indonesia. Any Chinese action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful, Pompeo said.

Reportedly, nearly US$4 trillion in trade transits the South China Sea each year. More than $1 trillion of that is linked to the US market. The sea is home to an estimated $2.6 trillion in recoverable offshore oil and gas. It also has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds that employ an estimated 3.7 million people in coastal ASEAN states.

Written by Lexy Nantu, Email: lexynantu@theinsiderstories.com