A New South China Sea Code of Conduct for ASEAN?
Plus a world of à la carte alignments; Israel-Hamas war fallout; Philippines military modernization; Myanmar conflict talks; coming trade pact and much more.
Greetings to new readers and welcome all to this edition of the weekly ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this iteration, we are looking at:
Assessing the significance of recent talk of an intra-ASEAN South China Sea code of conduct and impacts on the wider Indo-Pacific region;
Mapping of regional developments including Myanmar conflict talks, the fallout for Southeast Asian states from the Israel-Hamas war and more;
Charting evolving trends such as on the rise of à la carte alignments, growing economic angst and related issues;
Tracking and analysis of industry developments including a coming trade pact; crypto crackdown warning; new climate deal and more;
And much more! ICMYI, check out our take on what the recent ASEAN defense ministers’ meetings reveal about Southeast Asia’s evolving security landscape, right after our coverage of APEC engagements and IPEF.
WonkCount: 1,975 words (~9 minutes reading time)
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Israel-Hamas War Fallout; Japan Vietnam Relations Boost in the Spotlight; Myanmar Conflict Talks & More
A New South China Sea Code of Conduct for ASEAN?
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s suggestion of an intra-ASEAN-like code of conduct on the South China Sea has once again revived the prospects of flexible regional minilateralism and its effects on the evolving strategic landscape, even if it remains a farfetched notion based on current sobering realities.
What’s Behind It
Marcos suggested that Southeast Asian states could craft their own intra-ASEAN code of conduct (COC) on the South China Sea without China. During a speaking engagement in Hawaii, he said Manila was “in the midst of negotiating our own code of conduct” with other claimant states like Vietnam, and that these bilateral pacts could “grow further.”1 He also rightly observed that ASEAN-China COC talks - which date back to the 1990s and have continued since the adoption of a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 — have been moving at a glacial pace2.
The idea of narrowing intra-ASEAN differences is far from new, but it does offer a sense of where Marcos is on the South China Sea question. The popular framing of the South China Sea talks as an aggregate ASEAN-China question belies the tensions among Southeast Asian claimant states over their own claims, adjacent issues like illegal fishing or broader unresolved disputes like the Sabah issue between Malaysia and the Philippines3. This, along with the growing shadow of China’s influence, have made it difficult to sustain even basic minilateral ideas — with a case in point being the short-lived idea of a working group between the four ASEAN claimants of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam back in 2014 (Indonesia has maritime differences with Beijing but does not count itself as a claimant)4. Nonetheless, close observers will note that since coming to office, Marcos has sought to address this challenge, including through publicly backing a Philippine-Vietnam maritime pact and suggesting Manila would like to conclude such agreements with other ASEAN countries5.
Why It Matters
The position of the Philippines is an important one within the broader regional context, especially given the Marcos administration’s efforts thus far to assert Philippine interests in the South China Sea and resist Chinese pressure. In just this past fortnight alone, following a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the APEC meeting in San Francisco, Marcos visited the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) in Hawaii and the Philippines subsequently kicked off joint patrols with the United States and Australia in quick succession (see table below for a quick snapshot of recent developments)6. This closer engagement of partners and a more holistic conception of Philippine interests is a marked departure from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who disrupted the regional balance on the South China Sea question when he set aside a significant international arbitral ruling that Manila had won and tried to boost China ties while undermining the U.S.-Philippine alliance.
Select Recent South China Sea-Related Developments for the Philippines
Though an actual ASEAN claimant code of conduct may seem farfetched given its inherent challenges, it nonetheless holds potential significance given that it would constitute a strategic triple win. Despite the hype around Marcos’ remarks, he has said that he envisions more of a building block approach of managing disputes among fellow Southeast Asian states, rather than some sort of immediate parallel ASEAN claimant code of conduct7. But even movement towards minimizing differences between claimant states could be a win on three fronts: it would send a powerful signal to Beijing on its foot-dragging in ASEAN-China COC talks, while also reenergizing flexible regional minilateralism and potentially minimizing real differences among Southeast Asian states.
Where It’s Headed
Looking ahead, there will continue to be scrutiny on how exactly this progresses within the Philippines’ South China Sea policy. The key question for the region is the extent to which the Marcos administration can sustain its current approach. Part of this is related to any momentum on the building blocks Marcos has referred to, such as a maritime pact with Vietnam. Yet this will also evolve as the Philippines and other claimants manage their own interests and alignment balances. For Manila, the Marcos administration’s actions thus far have left plenty to watch, including the continuation of regular resupply missions related to Second Thomas Shoal with U.S. support (and perhaps even future reinforcement of Manila’s position there); joint patrols with Australia and the United States just kickstarted; and other significant inroads like a reciprocal access agreement with Japan8. Marcos will also have to calibrate this with stabilizing ties with Beijing and addressing domestic political and economic issues where his true governance challenges lie. Unsurprisingly, Beijing swiftly rejected the notion of a departure from the current ASEAN-China DOC and COC process.9
It will also be important to monitor how Manila’s South China Sea approach fits in with broader regional dynamics. While Indonesia as ASEAN chair injected some momentum into moribund ASEAN-China COC talks which date back to the 1990s, there is still skepticism about any meaningful agreement being reached within the next couple of years10. This is compounded by other anxieties previously noted here on ASEAN Wonk, such as how the South China Sea issue will progress under the chairmanship of Laos in 2024 — even if setbacks do not approach the level of ASEAN’s unprecedented failure to adopt a joint communique during Cambodia’s chair year back in 2012. Even if inroads are made, part of the speculation will revolve around which chairmanship year tangible progress could take shape. After Laos chairs ASEAN in 2024, we will then see the chairmanship shift to two consecutive South China Sea claimants, with Malaysia chairing in 2025 and the Philippines itself chairing in 2026. It also goes without saying that as important as the South China Sea issue is, it is also being managed in a context of multiple and multilayered security challenges. Nor will China be standing still — both in diplomatic circles and on the water with its large asymmetric advantages in military capabilities relative to ASEAN claimants.
A World of À La Carte Partnerships; Southeast Asia’s Massive Renewable Potential; Security (Re)thinking
“Respondents in Indonesia were divided on this point, with around a third of respondents choosing the US and China, and another third saying “I don’t know,” notes a new poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations which observes that much of the rest of the world favors an “a la carte arrangement” where governments favor pragmatic, issue-based alignments. The findings note a certain degree of contrast between Indonesia and the other countries polled, including Brazil, India, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey (link).
“Southeast Asian countries require stronger policy support to stimulate solar and wind development” and meet net-zero targets out to 2050, notes a new report on the subject by Ember. The report notes that over 99 percent of wind and solar potential in the region remains untapped, with much of that potential in mainland Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand are identified as the top three countries with the largest solar potentials, while Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam rank as the top three for prospective wind capacity) (link).
Solar and Wind Potential in ASEAN
“[A]n independent foreign policy is one that expertly navigates the geopolitical realities of an otherwise uncertain security landscape and that is not born out of empty platitudes,” notes a new piece at The Strategist thinking through the dimensions of a national defense strategy for the Philippines. In addition to four categories of security threats — external threats; HADR; cyber; and internal security — it also identifies important policy areas such as modernization; defense posture; and alliance management (link).