Other ASEAN members do not find the path undertaken by the Philippines appealing
Published: Jun 06, 2024 03:49 PM
National flags of China and ASEAN member countries Photo: VCG

National flags of China and ASEAN member countries Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:
The escalation of the recent China-Philippines tensions raises concerns among neighboring countries in the South China Sea. How will the Philippines' provocations, instigated and supported by the US, affect the situation in the South China Sea in the remaining part of 2024? How do other ASEAN member countries perceive the Philippines' provocations in the South China Sea? Why do they hope that the situation will be contained? 

In the "ASEAN Perspective on the South China Sea" series, we collect wisdom and insights from former diplomats and scholars from ASEAN member countries. Ngeow Chow-Bing (Ngeow), director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya, told Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen that the current path undertaken by the Philippines is not necessarily the path the other ASEAN members would find appealing.

GT: There was a period of calmness in the South China Sea. However, since 2023, tensions have been escalating, mostly between China and the Philippines. Where do you think the tensions are headed?

Ngeow: The South China Sea has seen both periods of calmness and tension. There were also tense periods prior to 2023. However, since then the tensions between China and the Philippines have been quite high and persistent. The Philippines under current president Marcos is very determined to chart a different course from his predecessor in enhancing its claims in the South China Sea. Fundamentally, Malaysia hopes both sides can find a way to stabilize their dispute and come to some kind of mechanism whereby escalations can be avoided. 

GT: Amid the current tensions between China and the Philippines, we have seen no other ASEAN member countries voice support for the Philippines. What is their attitude toward the recent moves by the Philippines regarding the South China Sea issue?

Ngeow: ASEAN came up with a statement in late 2023 urging all sides to maintain calm and respect international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and affirmed ASEAN solidarity and commitment to peace and stability. The statement could be seen as some sort of reassurance to the Philippines. 

On the other hand, it is true that no other ASEAN member country has come out in strong support of the Philippines against China. Each ASEAN member country has its own set of interests in terms of their respective relationships with China and their own way such relationships are maintained and promoted. The current path undertaken by the Philippines is not necessarily the path the other ASEAN member countries will find appealing. 

GT: The term "Squad" has been created to describe the bloc that consists of the Philippines and the US and its other allies. What do you think of the US' role in the recent tensions in the South China Sea?  

Ngeow: The US is the treaty ally of the Philippines. The Philippines finds the US to be the only credible defense ally in its current conundrum, and both sides have a lot of common strategic objectives. The US also feels that it has to demonstrate the value of its alliance and has been strongly backing the Philippines in the current round of tensions. But in exchange, the US has expanded its access to the military facilities of the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, especially since 2023. The Philippines' defense alliance with the US has become further solidified and entrenched, but the risk of the Philippines being directly implicated should a US-China armed conflict arise has also become higher. 

Ngeow Chow-Bing Photo: ics.um.edu.my

Ngeow Chow-Bing Photo: ics.um.edu.my

GT: China is often portrayed by the US as a "bully" and a country that tends to advocate the use of force. Nonetheless, the State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey conducted by the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute revealed that China has edged past the US to become the prevailing choice if the region were forced to align itself in the ongoing China-US rivalry. How do people in the region perceive China? Do they view China as a peace-builder or "bully"?

Ngeow: The ISEAS survey that shows more Southeast Asians preferring China over the US should be seen in the context of the Gaza War from late 2023. The US' credibility has suffered greatly because of this war, especially in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. It is hard to say whether the people in the region have a uniform perception of China. This region is very diverse. 

Nonetheless, I think it is commendable that China has been working very hard to increase win-win cooperation and mutual understanding with Southeast Asia for many years. China has provided many forms of assistance to Southeast Asian countries, ranging from education and capacity building to foreign investment and sharing advanced technology. The green technology in particular will be crucially important for Southeast Asian countries. China has also been increasingly active in engaging with different sectors of the Southeast Asian societies. I believe the more this kind of assistance and engagement continues, the more positive the people in the region's overall perception of China will be.

GT: May 31, 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Malaysia. How do you assess the current China-Malaysia relationship?

Ngeow: Overall, Malaysia has managed its relationship with China well. Malaysia has positive and stable ties with China, and the leadership of both countries have seriously committed to the construction of a durable and mutually beneficial partnership. The South China Sea is an important issue but both Malaysia and China have the consensus that this issue should not define the overall bilateral relationship and it should be managed carefully and rationally. 

GT: ASEAN has been peaceful "compared to other regional groupings," said former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad at a recent conference in Tokyo. What lessons could be drawn from this?

Ngeow: ASEAN has its own weaknesses for sure. It can be quite indecisive and ineffective at times. However, it has been a long time since Southeast Asia saw war or armed conflict. ASEAN's inclusivity, the "ASEAN way" of doing things, its propensity to engage with different actors, to look for common areas of cooperation rather than magnify areas of difference, have served the region well, helping promote a culture of peace seeking, inclusiveness and mutual respect. Of course, other factors have probably also contributed to this regional peace and stability. I hope ASEAN can offer lessons to the wider area in the region.