Indonesian President Joko Widodo has not lived up to hopes he would work to eradicate corruption. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto / Andrew Gal

Despite rising tensions in the South China Sea, Southeast Asian leaders addressing the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly gave more weight to pandemic response and economic recovery.

Of the four regional littoral states invited to make statements marking the diamond anniversary of the world body, only two mentioned the South China Sea, and only one cited the 2016 arbitration ruling. This shows how neighboring coastal states view the issue relative to other foreign-policy priorities and how they walk the tightrope as US-China rivalry heats up. 

In recent months, pressure has been building up on China’s maritime claims in the contested sea. Countries from Southeast Asia to the United States and Australia have issued diplomatic notes repudiating Beijing’s claims as contrary to international law.

Manila, Jakarta, Washington and Canberra have all cited the landmark 2016 arbitration ruling in The Hague that invalidated claims based on historic rights for extended maritime entitlements drawn from features in the semi-enclosed sea. Days before the UN session began on September 21, the United Kingdom, France and Germany became the latest to join the chorus with their joint note verbale likewise critical of China’s position. 

However, despite such momentum, of the ASEAN leaders addressing the Assembly, only Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte allowed ample space to cover the South China Sea and the importance of the 2016 tribunal award in his speech.

Surprising domestic critics and countries concerned about Manila’s wavering stance on the issue, he said, “The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon,” adding that the Philippines “firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”

The mercurial leader also welcomed “the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for.” 

This said, Manila was alone in citing the ruling as making a valuable contribution toward a peaceful resolution of the dispute. Other Southeast Asian leaders refrained from citing the maritime row at all. 

Vietnam, this year’s ASEAN chair, did mention the South China Sea, but in the context of Hanoi’s commitment to “the maintenance and promotion of peace, stability, maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation” in accordance with international law.

The closest it came to alluding to the 2016 award was a reference to due respect for “legal processes,” a broad, subtle phrase that subsumed the arbitration. While this move may be viewed as a balancing act for Hanoi as it pursues its own dialogue with Beijing, it is not inconsistent with its earlier position. 

Both Vietnam and Malaysia did issue diplomatic notes opposing China’s sweeping claims in the strategic sea, but stopped short of explicitly endorsing the 2016 award. Meanwhile, other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations remained mum on the issue.

While most regional leaders veered away from touching the simmering maritime flashpoint, they reiterated their commitment to multilateralism and inclusivity in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong said, “The UN must serve as the ‘incubator’ for multilateral cooperation initiatives for peace, development and prosperity.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo argued, “The UN needs to prove that multilateralism delivers especially during the time of crisis,” saying it is “the only way that could guarantee equality.” He also stressed the need to strengthen “collective global leadership.” Both leaders said that no country should be left behind.

Duterte also appealed for UN member countries to rededicate themselves to multilateralism.

As the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine intensifies, regional leaders renewed calls to make the cure available to all. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that “once a vaccine is found, it must be accessible to all nations and peoples.”

Widodo said the “vaccine will be the game changer in the war against the pandemic,” echoing the need to ensure that “all countries have equal access to a safe vaccine with affordable price.”

Duterte likewise added that the vaccine “must be considered a global public good.”

Moreover, regional countries also expressed worries about the growing geopolitical rivalry, including in the South China Sea. Widodo voiced concern that “if division and rivalries continue to persist,” then “the pillars of stability and sustainable peace will crumble or even [be] destroyed.”

Duterte highlighted the huge stakes if ever a conflict ensues, saying that “given the size and military might of the contenders, we can only imagine and be aghast at the terrible toll on human life and property that shall be inflicted if the ‘word war’ deteriorates into a real war of nuclear weapons and missiles.” 

Despite their countries’ small size relative to competing great powers, ASEAN leaders reaffirmed their readiness to contribute to soothing tensions.

Widodo underscored that “Indonesia will continue to play a role as bridge builder, as part of the solution.” He argued that the 1955 Bandung Principles remain relevant to this day in promoting cooperation, peaceful settlement of disputes and respect for international law.

Duterte cited the Non-Aligned Movement and the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes. He cautioned parties to global flashpoints, saying that “if we cannot be friends as yet, then in God’s name, let us not hate each other too much.”

Notwithstanding their commitment to UN principles, the statements delivered by Southeast Asian leaders belie increasing apprehension about great-power rivalry and how this may play out in the South China Sea.

ASEAN can certainly leverage growing censure of Chinese claims and support for the 2016 arbitration award in its Code of Conduct negotiations with Beijing set to resume before the year ends. However, fears abound that a superpower clash might hijack such talks.  

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Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.