The Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducts operations in the South China Sea in 2020. Photo: AFP / Samuel Hardgrove / US Navy

The escalation of the US-China contest for domination of the South China Sea is threatening peace, stability and the welfare of the peoples in the region. A military clash between China and the US in that sea may not be inevitable, but it is increasingly likely.

The danger is clear and present and it is urgent that the region’s governments seize control of the situation to avoid big-power conflict that will cause them significant collateral damage.

The 38th ASEAN Summit and related summits will be held on October 26-28 in Brunei, followed by the East Asian Summit in November. It could be the last chance that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will have as an organization to assert itself and avoid a great-power clash in the South China Sea. 

ASEAN needs to go back to basics and  breathe new life into the 1971 Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) declaration, the 1976 ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (the Bali Treaty), and the 1995 Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ – the Bangkok Treaty).

The South China Sea is one of the most dangerous places for potential big-power conflict.  This is not speculation or hyperbole. Beijing was so concerned by the US shows of force there that the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Miley, felt he had to reassure China that the US was not planning to attack it.

The US-driven anti-China security partnerships, the Quad and now AUKUS, have only compounded the situation and raised the likelihood of a US-China clash in the South China Sea. These realpolitik strategic moves are meant to counter what Washington sees as the “China threat” to its hegemony in Asia. China’s reaction is likely to make the situation even more dangerous. 

The US and its partners undertook these actions in part because ASEAN has been ineffective in dealing with regional security issues such as the South China Sea dispute. So the US and its allies went around and over them to form these pacts. As a result, ASEAN has been weakened and split. 

Treaties need tightening

In 1971, the founding members of ASEAN – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – reaffirmed their vision for the region with their ZOPFAN declaration. Its preamble specifically reiterated one of the reasons for the founding of ASEAN: to keep the region “free from any form or manner of interference by outside powers.” Indeed, it was intended to prevent big-power conflict in their region. 

Building on ZOPFAN, in 1976, ASEAN members negotiated the Bali Treaty, which promotes “perpetual peace, everlasting amity and cooperation among the people of Southeast Asia.” All major outside actors including China have acceded to it. Indeed, that was the implied condition for them to be invited to ASEAN’s major regional security forums like the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-Plus meetings. 

ASEAN has been trying to be heard, but to little or no avail. In June 2020, when then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo called out China for its aggressive policies and actions in the South China Sea, the ASEAN foreign ministers responded by repeating their intent to maintain Southeast Asia as “a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability” and called on all countries “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.”

They also called on the protagonists to refrain from the threat or use of force and to resolve differences and disputes by peaceful means.

An ASEAN statement issued at the request of Indonesia reaffirmed “the importance of upholding the purposes and principles of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) Declaration and the Declaration of the East Asia Summit on the Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations.”

These statements are about as blunt as ASEAN gets. But it has not been enough to restrain the US and China. 

Indeed, such pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The present US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has reaffirmed Pompeo’s statement as policy. Put bluntly, ASEAN’s preferences are being ignored.

Time to get tough

To protect themselves and their peoples from a big-power conflagration in their region, ASEAN or a significant portion of its members has to act with uncharacteristic dispatch, gusto and bluntness. It should increase the tone, tenor and decibels of its “unified” voice admonishing China and the US to show more diplomatic and military restraint. It should unequivocally state that it opposes both the US and China military posturing in the South China Sea.  

Indeed, the ASEAN countries need to press their pledged partners in promoting peace – those outside powers that have acceded to the Bali Treaty. One possibility is for a group of core members to make a multilateral public appeal to both the US and China to restrain themselves.

If nothing else, it would deprive both – but especially the US – of the excuse that they are acting to help the Southeast Asian countries. Perhaps China’s rival claimants could form an ASEAN subcommittee to deal with China while the larger organization tries to fend off the US.   

The Bali Treaty has been endorsed by the UN General Assembly. Moreover, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has appealed to the two powers to restrain themselves. ASEAN could make a formal request to his good offices for assistance in restraining the two. 

A rallying point has been provided by the accident involving the US nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapon-capable submarine Connecticut in the South China Sea. It was there as part of the US effort to contain China militarily. 

On October 7, the US Navy announced that five days earlier on October 2, the submarine hit an unidentified object in the South China Sea. According to the announcement, it “remained in a safe and stable condition” and its “nuclear propulsion plant and spaces were not affected and remain fully operational.” 

This may be, though the region has to take the United States’ word for it. Nevertheless, the accident highlighted the danger of the burgeoning military operations in the South China Sea.

One accident that releases nuclear radiation could damage the marine food supply for all the littoral countries through aversion to eating it if nothing else. Judging from the Fukushima disaster in Japan, although the radiation may be insignificant or rapidly decrease to safe levels, the reputational damage to the fishery would last much longer. This would be a nightmare for the regional countries. 

ASEAN has a vehicle that could, with some tightening of its language, help minimize this possibility. The Bangkok Treaty obliges its members “not to develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons.” This treaty was a specific corollary to ZOPFAN.

The declared nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) consists of the territories of the ASEAN members and their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelves. “Territory” includes the territorial sea, archipelagic waters, the seabed and subsoil thereof and the airspace above them. Some say it also applies to nuclear-powered vessels, although I do not interpret it that way.

Unsurprisingly, none of the nuclear-weapon states or those using nuclear-powered vessels have acceded to its protocol.

The SEANWFZ Commission consisting of the ASEAN foreign ministers met last on September 9, 2020, and reviewed activities undertaken to ensure nuclear safety and security in the region and supported efforts to promote the Bangkok Treaty in UN forums.

The US opposes the treaty because of its concerns regarding freedom of navigation in the EEZs in the area, because it does not want to be prohibited from using nuclear weapons while in transit through EEZs, and because it does not want a third party (China) to be able to have refuge in the area.

The treaty could be tightened to close loopholes. Of course the nuclear powers would resist, but ASEAN doing so would send a signal that the Southeast Asian countries have had enough of the great powers’ militaries operating in their region in total disregard of their welfare.

The treaty provides that “each state party, on being notified, may decide for itself whether to allow visits by foreign ships and aircraft to its ports and airfields.” This could be tightened by recommending that its members not allow port visits by nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapon-bearing vessels, like New Zealand has done.

China has stated that it will sign the Bangkok Treaty’s protocol. But it has not yet done so because ASEAN wants all five nuclear powers to sign simultaneously. China’s signature would be significant because it has declared no first use of nuclear weapons and that it will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or in NWFZs established by treaty.

ASEAN or a segment thereof could request that the UN General Assembly resolve a fundamental contradiction in its guidelines for NWFZs. They allow states party to a nuclear-weapons-free zone to decide for themselves whether to allow visits by foreign ships and aircrafts to their ports and airfields, allow transit of their airspace by foreign aircraft, and navigation by foreign ships in or over their territorial sea, archipelagic waters or straits that are used for international navigation.

This is a fundamental contradiction with the concept and purpose of NWFZs and renders them ineffective. Just raising the issue could prompt the US and China to pause and perhaps provide a period for peace to have a chance.

These suggestions may seem unrealistic. But if ASEAN or its members do nothing, it is also unrealistic to think that peace and stability in the region will be sustained. It must at least try – hard and soon.

A summary of this piece will be presented at the Symposium on Global Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance 2021, November 9-10 in Sanya, Hainan, China.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.