Sea as Political Space under ASEAN’s Flag


The obscurity of ASEAN facing the South China Sea issue after the victory of the Philippines against China in the tribunal ruling showed the fragmented ASEAN. Various views criticized potential to rearrange ASEAN regional integration ended nil after the result of ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Vientiane, Laos. The meeting ended without a joint agreement by ASEAN member countries on the issue of the South China Sea. This situation indicates a declination of political relations between ASEAN countries within the framework of regional cooperation.

After the victory according to the result issued by the arbitral tribunal ruling, the Philippines energies a new approach for ASEAN to encourage the unification of ASEAN on the issue of the South China Sea during the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Laos. The initiative was presented by the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines as a step getting the international support towards ASEAN unity. The meeting was controversially reported that Cambodia and Laos refuse consensus in facing the South China Sea.

In fact, when referring to the release of a joint communique of the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, all countries agreed to establish a network of communication between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to maritime emergencies in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, the strategic measures agreed upon has not shown the existence of a single perspective in dealing with China in the South China Sea. Two of the failure to agree on a joint communiqué in Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur should be seen as the culmination of the change of position of ASEAN on South China Sea.

Thus, the question would be how should the ASEAN member countries facing the South China Sea issue?

ASEAN needs to establish a new constructive approach on the sea and its significance for regional integration. Sea is not only to be treated as a material element that can be exploited, but also as a political space in which the action of appropriation can be performed. Reflecting on how the Chinese build a discourse on the importance of the South China Sea is not only to meet the substantive national interest, but also as a traditional element that must be protected.

In the context of Southeast Asia, Jennifer Gaynor argues that the political instrumentalization over sea space had already happened in Southeast Asia. It was firstly brought by the Javanese who are creating the concept of ‘Nusantara’ dividing them with outside party. However, this concept developed to serve ranging purposes from nation-building, national security, and territorial demarcation (Gaynor, 2007). Since the mid-twentieth century, the term Nusantara has become the synonym for tanah air. This period demonstrated how Majapahit empire used this term making appropriation against the Dutch who claimed to restore the glorious of “Indianized” states of Java’s pre-Islamic past (Gaynor, 2007). By giving such ‘spatial ideology’ is to serve the purpose of Javanese making exclusive space against other nations outside of Java Island. In the aftermath, the concept of Nusantara denotes a national space in 1940s. The contemporary Indonesian illustrated Nusantara as a group of islands located between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean or between the Asian mainland and Australia. For the last reason, in 1957, the Indonesia government reinvented the concept of Nusantara in order to prevent the regional rebellions, thus issuing a statement of national unity called the Djuanda Declaration. The additional purpose is that this declaration also includes all of the waters between Indonesia’s islands within a single connected body: manifesting the abstract geographical signifier.

Referring the context above, the ASEAN member countries should begin to consider sea as a political space that is significant to be maintained through the process of appropriation. Instead of just dwelling on the substantive level, ASEAN members need to realize the importance of the ideological claims of the sea as a political space.

Dedi Dinarto is a research assistant at ASEAN Studies Center, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada.