After the 10-bloc ASEAN summit convened remotely on 26 June, many were hopeful that Vietnam – which chaired the meeting – would use it as a platform to redress PLC expansion in the South China Sea. Unfortunately for those expecting a sea change in the SCS, coronavirus remained top of mind.
In early April, the US Department of State first drew the link between the pandemic and build-up in the South China Sea. In an official statement released to press, a spokesman said that China was using the outbreak as a guise to increase activity in the region.
"We call on the PRC [People's Republic of China] to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea," the US Department of State said in a statement in early April.
Following this, US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse jnr told Defence Connect that China was pursuing an expansionist policy in the region with "shocking new vigour".
Pushing back on what he termed “Beijing’s heavy-handed attempts to unlawfully impose its territorial claims on the rest of the (Indo-Pacific) region," he said that freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) conducted by the USS Barry and USS Bunker Hill in April went some way to counterbalancing this.
So, in the lead-up the delayed 36th ASEAN summit, it was widely expected that countries would look to use it as a forum to air their grievances with China. Particularly Vietnam, which has been perhaps the most vocal of ASEAN nations in its disdain for China's assertion of the "nine-dash line" and acts as the current ASEAN chair.
Tensions between the south-east Asian country and its neighbour to the north have been at a record high since the early April sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, after collision with a Chinese Coast Guard vessel in claimed territory off the Paracel Islands. Following the ramming and sinking, a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel detained the crew on a nearby island. Two nearby Vietnamese vessels, which sought to rescue their countrymen, were reportedly also apprehended by Chinese authorities. All of them were later released by Chinese authorities, according to reports in the Asia Times.
It came as little surprise that in his opening speech, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said, “While the entire world was fighting an epidemic, irresponsible actions that violate international laws and pose threats to security and stability were taking place in some areas, including Vietnam’s.”
Prior to the meeting, Vietnam also pushed aggressively for an in-person meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, given it has effectively contained its outbreak. Though unsuccessful in its bid, diplomats from other ASEAN nations acknowledged that it can be difficult to conduct diplomacy over a Skype connection. "We can't negotiate this kind of thing virtually, so we can only wait until the situation improves," said a Indonesian Foreign Ministry official to the Nikkei Asian Review.
Yet as is always the case in the world of naval policy, time is of the essence. With a plan to jointly develop a China-ASEAN code of conduct for navigation and development in the SCS falling by the wayside for now, China is likely to exploit the delay to further consolidate its presence in disputed waters. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has previously suggested a code could be drafted and signed by 2021 – while this is looking far less likely with each passing day, it's worth bearing in mind the speed at which the country's industry is able to mobilise and carry out construction works.
As ASEAN countries refocus towards domestic coronavirus woes, so too will their ability to project economic and military muscle externally dwindle. Indonesia, for example, has announced it will slash its defence budget this year by nearly US$588 million. Thailand has likewise reduced its defence allocation by $555 million, and the Philippines decided to scrap the annual Baltikatan 2020 exercise, which would have seen joint drills carried out with the Australian Navy.
Yet at the same time, it's clear that China is stepping up its presence in the region, and will continue to do so over the course of at least the next year. While ASEAN leaders flounder on putting together a code of conduct, the PLAN moves to fill the void.
The effects of Chinese naval assertiveness, of course, are more nuanced than naked militarisation in the Paracels and the Spratlys. They spill over into the commercial, creating headaches for their ASEAN neighbours in all manner of ways.
Just prior to the outbreak, reports surfaced that the CCG had escorted Chinese vessels while fishing illegally inside the Indonesian exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in the North Natuna Sea, kicking off a diplomatic spat between President Xi Jinping and his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo. In more recent months, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese government research ship, conducted a survey near the the Petronas-operated West Capella, flaring tensions with Kuala Lumpur.
"Concerns were expressed on the land reclamations, recent developments, activities and serious incidents" in the South China Sea, said the ASEAN summit's chairman on Friday. The statement emphasised "the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to negotiations on the code of conduct".
As the world moves forward into the "new normal", this sort of empty rhetoric will no longer cut it. With Beijing's proclivity to flout international maritime law – case in point being the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea case brought by the Philippines – it's not even clear that a binding SCS Code of Conduct can fix the issue, even if one is achieved over the coming year.
Writing for The Diplomat in 2019, Vietnamese politician Nguyen Minh Quang put it particularly well, speaking to the likelihood of a binding COC ever getting off the ground.
"China won't join a binding COC," he says, "that could challenge Beijing’s aim of turning the South China Sea into its own private lake."