China and The ASEAN: A Need for Shifting Paradigm

Feature - China and ASEAN

Dedi Dinarto – Research Intern at ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada (

Even though China has successfully controlled the entire Spratlys on January 1974, the discourse on China’s presence in South China Sea remains the most debated issue in Southeast Asia. Accordingly the economic, strategic and political interests of involved ASEAN member countries cannot be separeaed with this problematic issue. China’s presence in the South China Sea cannot be separated from the historical trajectory, which is claimed as its own territory. However, the establishment of the ASEAN consequently resulted the demarcation of South China Sea by several ASEAN countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam, claimed the South China Sea as their territory. Soon afterwards, this complexity of interest sparked the border dispute among them, which until now, has not been able to be resolved.

There are some scholarly discussions over this issue. For example, Ralf Emmers explained his main argument justifying the China’s naval position in the Spratlys has continue to be weak due to its limited power projection (Emmers, 2007:53). At that time, China naval capability did not arrange the external mission instead of remaining stay at its mainland bases. However, the transformation of China’s foreign policy, particularly during the leadership of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, triggered anxiety and caution of its neighbor countries, in which its action is predicted to control over some disputed border through assertive behavior.

In the sense of China’s past behavior, many diplomatic efforts have been done politically despite of military projection. But the current condition seems to be very different and any attempts to involve in the conflict will be regarded as a threat to the balance of power in South China Sea dispute. since the rise of China’s military budget has correspondingly shown its assertive behavior due to the naval presence in South China Sea. From 2013 to 2015, China’s military budget is rising year-to-year approximately US$ 114.3 billion in 2013, US$ 131.57 billion in 2014, and US$ 141.5 billion in 2015 (Erickson, 2013, 2015; Keck, 2014). Having Hua Chunying as the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, she underlined the reason behind the extensive presence of China’s naval in South China Sea with the statement to maintain the military personnel, safeguard the maritime and territorial integrity, respond the maritime search and rescue, and increase the observation and research, as well as enhance fishery production (Tiezzi, 2015).

This statement has also been revealed as the main reason of China’s reclamation projects in the conflicting area. These projects remains debatable because they have larger political functions, particularly for military bases. Nevertheless, the most important thing that we can see is all about the diplomatic way endorsed by Hua Chunying, in some purpose to hide the more political and assertive behavior toward this issue, as explained by Fareed Zakaria as an effort of Chinese to hide consciously the ‘bully’ action from international view (Li, 2009:2). In the sense, this kind of political issue is successfully reframed by Chinese using soft power approach despite of military intervention.

Understanding Regional Security in ASEAN

In general, it is worth necessary to understand how the ASEAN member countries manage their conflict or dispute internally and externally. The ‘ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea’ stated ASEAN’s position toward the disputed area by means of peaceful way, without resort to force, and to be concerned on exercise restraint (Morse, 1992:2-3). Hence, the ASEAN Way as the basic principal of member countries shows its essence to solve every bilateral or regional disputes using consultation and consensus despite of forces.

Besides that, since 1967, the ASEAN member countries have built the principle of non-interference, which means of no military conflict in every internal affairs. This principle has long to affect the relationship of ASEAN member countries. On the other hand, results some prominent principles to understand ASEAN, which are the respect of sovereignty, and the high acknowledgement on freedom, independence, and integrity.

Basically, the ASEAN member countries also stated on the Bangkok Declaration 1967 about how they should dealt with external interference, especially several Great Powers after World War II, which are Uni Soviet, United States of America, and China as the nearest and biggest neighbor. They seek to defend their regional stability by ensuring the security of ASEAN territory from external interference in any form or manifestation. Therefore, it is necessarily important to underline the framework of regional security in ASEAN which do not acknowledge the use of force and military action.

A Need for Shifting Paradigm?

Accordingly, the old understanding of regional security framework in ASEAN is justified to set aside the material purposes in which the cooperation was basically made through value and norms as the product of inter-subjectivity. It is worth to say that the construction of security community in ASEAN is non-sense and rhetorical instead of developing the substantive cooperation (Acharya, 2001:63). The unconsciousness of ASEAN member countries to accept the nature of materialismm in one hand, has been used by China to expand its military presence in the South China Sea. In the other hand, China is not only to use its soft approach getting closer to the South China Sea, but also taking some materialistic advantage in this situation, which according to the ASEAN member countries as the irrelevant factor in term of regional security.

In terms of South China Sea conflict issue, the ASEAN member countries shall re-understand the behavior of China over some disputed areas. Giulio M. Gallarotti promoted the cosmopolitanism power as the new framework to understand the current international politics. It acknowledges the possibility of soft power and hard power being practiced simultaneously. To maintain good relationship and image with all possible countries and to concern on military capability development are the two most prominent elements to define cosmopolitan power. Hence, what has China has shown to the world, particularly in the South China Sea, is worth to be described as the practice of such power. Expanding its economic cooperation is included as the practice of soft power. On the contrary, the increasing of military budget, and spreading of military presence are the concrete action of China to practice its hard power.

ASEAN member countries should also seek a new paradigm to handle the South China Sea dispute. The consciousness over the military expansion needs to be discussed further for a new strategy balancing the Chinese military presence. Not to be collided with the ASEAN Political Security Community Blueprint 2009-2015, it is important for ASEAN member countries to address their common interests on the military cooperation, particularly on the provision of common military equipment and personnel for regional integrity despites of the exclusive cooperation among disputed ASEAN member. With the notion of ASEAN centrality, a ‘common interest’ will overcome ASEAN’s passive attitudes towards Chinese military development in the South China Sea.