Amid the spectre of China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, Indonesia plans to convene a meeting with some of its ASEAN colleagues — including the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore. If the meeting happens, Beijing may not dial down its activities in the disputed areas, but the point would have been made that Indonesia is prepared to take the lead in galvanising ASEAN on South China Sea matters. The idea of a meeting is not new, but this time it might just work.
Though in word it professes to never seek hegemony or bully smaller countries, in deed, China behaves unilaterally and flexes its economic and political muscles for dominance in the South China Sea, says Indian academic Amrita Jash.
Indonesia's strategic resources and political leadership are heavily directed inwards, leaving little bandwidth to invest in options beyond the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) to address Indo-Pacific strategic challenges. For pressing challenges, whether over the South China Sea, Myanmar or other Indo-Pacific flashpoints like Taiwan, Indonesia needs to invest in non-ASEAN options as well. Furthermore, it would help to have a "centralised hub" under the president’s office to coordinate its strategies.
The China-Laos railway linking China’s Yunnan province to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, was officially opened in December 2021. This mega project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expected to improve connectivity and stimulate the economy but Laos has incurred hefty external debt to achieve this, says EAI academic Yu Hong. The railway alone is also just the hardware; the Laotians will have to do more to make the best of its investment.
The European Council reached an agreement on an EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in April 2021, and in September, it presented a joint communication in which ASEAN was mentioned 31 times, paving the way for the EU to join the other longstanding advocates of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Given the similarities in ASEAN's Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and the EU's Indo-Pacific strategy, ASEAN can play a role in the EU's hopes to shape a rules-based international order and offer a rules-based alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
ISEAS researcher Joanne Lin notes that the G7 is courting ASEAN in a bid to increase its profile in the Indo-Pacific. And while both groups share some common ground on issues such as the South China Sea and supply chains, they also diverge in significant ways on other issues such as supporting values of democracy and human rights, which stems as much from differences within ASEAN as the fact that expressing such views draws the ire of China.
Former foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang is slated to be the next Chinese ambassador to Indonesia. Amid US-China tensions, a post in Indonesia presents opportunities and challenges both in terms of bilateral relations and in engaging ASEAN. Known to be a steady hand, if Lu can chalk up notable achievements during his tenure, he may move on to higher roles, just like other high-flying spokesmen of the ministry.
With environmental security shaping a new South China Sea conversation about ecological challenges, science cooperation represents a litmus test to link the impact of environmental change to both national and international security, and can offer a means to defuse tensions, says James Borton. His new book, Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground, will be released soon.
ISEAS academic Ian Storey thinks that despite what China has said about wanting to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea, in mid November, China Coast Guard vessels prevented two Philippine Navy ships from delivering supplies to a group of Marines on Second Thomas Shoal. This can be seen as another of China's attempts to assert its claims in the South China Sea, which an arbitral tribunal ruled in 2016 were incompatible with UNCLOS for which China is a signatory. Is China not abiding by its promise?