Thomas Daniel was quoted in Bernama article.

Article by Voon Miaw Ping,  14 July 2020

KUALA LUMPUR, July 14 — As tension continues in the South China Sea over the overlapping territorial claims in the highly contested waters, ASEAN must look for an alternative approach to deal with the issue which can potentially jeopardise the region’s peace and stability.

With no clear solution in sight, a senior analyst at the Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Thomas Benjamin Danial said ASEAN may consider the use of minilateralism, saying that it would be more effective in dealing with the South China Sea issues.

“The countries most immediately affected (ASEAN claimant states) should proceed forward on minilateralism basis as opposed to waiting and accepting all ASEAN (member states) to agree or to join,” he told Bernama in an interview.

He added: “Minilateralism is a component of multilateralism. In the context of the South China Sea, it means the ASEAN claimant states –Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Philippines – should move forward to address the outstanding issues between them, and between these countries and China, without depending too much on all other ASEAN member states.

“Essentially, ASEAN as an organisation should play a supporting role. Not drive and lead negotiations,” he said.

Thomas pointed out that this is due to the fundamental architecture of ASEAN itself, where, while it operates on consensus, all issues are viewed with a different degree of concern.

“With 10 countries, we have 10 separate national interests and 10 ways of viewing different problems. For example, the South China Sea. It is not viewed with a similar degree of concern by all 10 member countries, neither is the Rohingya or the Mekong issues.  I feel that minilateralism is probably the most effective way to go here,” he said.

The member states  of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

He cited the Sulu-Celebes Seas’ trilateral patrols as a model for such cooperation.

Known as the Trilateral Maritime Patrols, the initiative was started in June 2017 between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines as a response to a spate of kidnappings and attacks in the area by the Abu Sayyaf militant group in 2016.

Thomas said despite having several disputes including border disagreements, all three countries had joined hands to address the security threats from the militants.

“Likewise in the South China Sea issue, countries that have the interests should do more together. More can be done this way (minilateralism),” Thomas added.

ASEAN countries which are claimants in the South China Sea are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China and Taiwan are making claims as well.

However, increased military activities in the South China Sea in recent years have caused serious concern in ASEAN and among keen players and observers of the conflict worldwide.

The Chairman’s Statement at the just-concluded 36th ASEAN Summit on June 26 reaffirmed the importance of upholding international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.

“We reaffirmed our shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” the Chairman’s statement issued at the end of the Summit said.

“We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones, and the 1982 UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. the statement said.

At the virtual Summit, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said that Malaysia’s position regarding the South China Sea has been clear and consistent, with views it should remain a sea of peace and trade.

“Thus, matters relating to the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully based on universally recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982,” he said.

The Summit was hosted virtually by Vietnam from Hanoi due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the pandemic, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun said ASEAN member states should step up capacity and cooperation to exchange crucial information related to COVID-19 in order to manage the pandemic in this region more effectively.

He said this would be a more realistic cooperation that the member states could work on.

“There is a need for transparency in information sharing, what’s going on, and some sort of uniformed measures in term of the people leaving and coming to ASEAN countries and between the ASEAN countries,” he said.

At the 36th ASEAN Summit, leaders had also agreed to set up a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund – where it will be used to purchase medical equipment and support research on treatment and vaccines – in order to fight the pandemic.

According to the John Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre, as of July 13, ASEAN nations cumulatively reported a total of 193,209 COVID-19 cases, with Indonesia having the most cases (76,981 cases), followed by the Philippines at 57,006 cases and Singapore at 46,283 cases

This article was first published in Bernama on 14 July 2020

- Advertisement -