The Southeast Asian block rejects China’s plan for Air Defence Identification Zones in the South China Sea. They defend the principle of freedom of navigation in the disputed waters. They face the difficult task of balancing trade integration with China and the need for diversified partners and investors.
Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – In the final communiqué of their annual summit, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have stressed the importance of “freedom of overflight” in the South China Sea, weary of China’s increasing assertiveness.
The ten-member organisation has rarely taken a common position against Beijing's territorial claims of almost 90 per cent of the South China Sea. On their own, ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia strongly oppose them.
Last April, the Philippine government condemned the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea, which Hanoi blames on a Chinese coastguard ship.
In an official note sent to the United Nations in late May, Indonesia backed a ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague against the "Nine-Dash line," Beijing’s historic territorial demarcation claim, which it says has no legal basis and violates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In addition to occupying and militarising a series of islets and coral reefs in the sea, China did not rule out the possibility of imposing an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the area. Beijing in 2013 did just that with the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
The ASEAN statement shows that member states are concerned by "the land reclamations, recent developments, activities and serious incidents" in the sea, insisting on the principle of freedom of navigation in the disputed waters. The United States and its Asian allies share this view.
Territorial issues with China overlap economic ones. ASEAN is in fact concerned about its economic stability, threatened by the post-coronavirus recession.
The pandemic has shown the vulnerability of supply chains linked to China, Southeast Asian countries’ main trading partner. For analysts, ASEAN countries will be forced to find on new point of balance in their relations with Beijing.
Efforts at boosting trade with China, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, will have to be accompanied by diversification of partners and investors. To this end, the United States and Japan are offering opportunities to move businesses away from China.