Setbacks for the ARF: Nuclear Free Zone Treaty & the South China Sea Conflict

Updated On: Jul 09, 2012

The 45th ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting began today in Phnom Penh, one of the many meetings in Cambodia this week leading up to the 19th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Dealing with disputes in the South China Sea was a major issue during the Ministers’ talk today, and will bring the topic to the forefront of conversation before the ARF officially starts on Thursday. The signing of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone treaty has also become a major topic of discussion, as foreign powers start to back out at the last minute. 

South China Sea

The Scarborough Shoal in the Western Philippine Sea has been claimed by the Philippines, China, and Vietnam. The dispute between the countries has raised diplomatic tensions in the region, and attempts to create guidelines or documents to resolve the disputes have been largely unsuccessful. In total, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam all have overlapping territorial claims throughout the South China Sea. In 2002, ASEAN members signed the Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which reportedly has had little influence in managing relations in the region. One of the goals of the ARF is for ASEAN to produce a “Code of Conducts” for all disputing parties to agree to as they argue their claims.

Pushpanathan Sundram, SIIA Fellow & former Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN for ASEAN Economic Community, provided SIIA with his own insight into the importance of the potential Code of Conduct:

"ASEAN and China must find ways to close the gaps between the DOC and the COC for both sides to realize the COC. The current tension in the South China Sea and differences within ASEAN and between ASEAN and China will impact on the progress of development of the COC which both sides agree is an important binding document to pursue."

"While the COC will help in ensuring peace, trust building and cooperation in the South China Sea, we must understand that it will not be an instrument for dispute settlement. As such, the COC must contain sufficient provisions and mechanisms to manage any issues that may erupt in the South China Sea in an amicable way for it to be effective.

The Code of Conducts will be largely aimed at China, who has provoked anger in the region by openly considering bids for oil drilling in contested waters. China has maintained that Beijing would rather handle disputed claims separately and privately with each country. The US’s growing military ties with Vietnam and the Philippines, has strained relations between China and the US, particularly so following the announcement that the majority of the US’s naval fleet will be repositioned in the Pacific. US Secretary of State has said that while the US will try to help facilitate cooperation between countries, its main goal during the ARF is to reaffirm their commitment to building stronger ties with China. The United States’ strategy to downplay their involvement has much to do with their interest in avoiding further diplomatic strain, and their interest in brokering deals pertaining to other international issues such as conservation and human rights.   

Nuclear Weapons Treaty

The signing of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone treaty (SEANWFZ) that was supposed to take this week has been stalled after the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom raised last minute concerns over the treaty’s protocols. The treaty, which was ratified by the members of ASEAN in 1995, has taken on particular significance in representing the cooperation between nuclear states, and the delay is a major set back for the Forum. All new signing parties expressed apprehension over how the zone affects their sovereignty, but each country has raised personal concerns. China was particularly worried about the influence the treaty would have on its ownership of continental shelves and special economic zones, the UK and France expressed confusion over the physical parameters of the zone, and Russia questioned the right of foreign vessels to pass through the zone. 

The Need for Stronger Regional Relationships

ASEAN has been considered by many as a weak union of countries loosely dedicated to discussion. In the last few years the relationship between these countries has taken on greater significance as economic activity booms in Asia relative to the West. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), ratified by ASEAN members in 1976, recently welcomed the UK, EU, and Brazil as new signatories. Strengthening affiliations with other international unions and major powers is helping legitimize ASEAN as a union, and is giving it more momentum to act on a regional scale.

SIIA Fellow Mr. Pushpanathan Sundram reflected on how this change is beneficial for ASEAN, and raised hopes for future partnerships and actionsL

"We should welcome the accession of EU, UK and Brazil into the TAC as it strengthens the links of ASEAN with Europe and Latin America. ASEAN, Europe and Latin America together could also play a more prominent role in addressing global issues such as climate change, environment, sustainable development as well as enhance their trade, investment and economic linkages. ASEAN is gradually becoming a global player and the admission of these countries and the EU into the TAC is a recognition of that."

Mr. Pushpanathan Sundram added to his comments by explaining his view on the importance of network-building, and the way the way forward for ASEAN as they continue to develop international relationship:

"Connectivity is another critical dimension for community building that ASEAN must continue to address. Now is the time to realise the priority projects under the Masterplan and the ASEAN machinery must be geared to raising the capital for and effectively coordinating and implementing the projects. This can't be done by governments alone. The private sector must be attracted through PPP models with governments providing certain guarantees and defraying the risks involved for longer term infrastructure projects."
"People-to-people connectivity must be given priority for community building. A single visa regime for ASEAN should be actively pursued while addressing the challenges of such a scheme."
"An ASEAN business travel card should be introduced as a part of free flow of business and skilled people that the ASEAN Economic Community envisages by 2015. It will be one clear demonstration that ASEAN is serious about its economic community building. A business travel card and a single visa together will have a powerful impact on the people about ASEAN community building."

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