ASEAN and Recent Tensions in the South China Sea

Vincent Wei-cheng Wang, University of Richmond
Chyungly Lee


This chapter examines how ASEAN as a regional organization has responded to recent South China Sea disputes and maritime incidents amidst the emerging geostrategic competition between the U.S. and mainland China. It first traces the key drivers contributing to the heightened tensions, including the claimant states' legal maneuvers (domestic laws and UN Convention on the Law of Seas), the U.S. "Pivot" (or Rebalancing) Policy, and the claimants' increasing unilateral measures to create "facts on the ground." It then reviews ASEAN's successes and failures in forging institutional responses to mainland China's increasingly assertive moves by discussing its various mechanisms, such as ARF, ADMM Plus, Declaration of Conduct, and endeavors to sign a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Although ASEAN as a collective body cannot itself be a party in territorial disputes and its various members may have variegated interests in the South China Sea conditioned by their individual relationships with mainland China, they all share common interest in maintaining regional peace and stability, as well as the solidarity and centrality of ASEAN on key regional issues. Thus, ASEAN's attempts to engage mainland China on the South China Sea via the development of COC are intertwined with ASEAN's own cohesion.