Southeast Asian Sea (ASEAN SEA) to replace South China Sea

This vast body of water can yet be transformed into a highly beneficial regional asset and ASEAN must be the one to initiate and push for this.

LOCATED in south-eastern Asia, the South China Sea is a historically recognized maritime route that acts as a gateway between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

It's widely acknowledged vital importance is due to the vast abundance of its natural resources with potential wells of alternative energy supplies. And for obvious strategic reasons, this prime biodiversity spot has long been a regional magnet to various littoral states and major powers within the area.

China, Taiwan and four member-countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are contesting certain parts of the area for these same reasons. These territorial claims have highly alerted other powerful states (including the United States) and multilateral bodies to the pending disputes.

As they certainly have the potential to spark off a future military conflict that could further conflagrate the entire Asia-Pacific region, this has already become a clear global threat. Hence, this strategic regional question now needs an urgent answer.

Certainly, it is ASEAN that will have to be the one to initiate and push for an alternative balance in the region. As a regional association whose member-states are all located in South-East Asia, ASEAN must now strike an independent path.

And for it to do so, ASEAN will have to secure a more regionally focused position that is fully centered on the genuine aspirations of its peoples and not on the strategic objectives of China and the United States.

Towards this directional setting, ASEAN should now rethink and re-invent its currently accepted view of, and attitude to, the South China Sea. This becomes urgently critical after no regional unity was reached in terms of a so-called "Code of Conduct" on this question after last month's 20th ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh. Surely, this latest regional setback has to be overcome – and soon.

For a start, ASEAN must immediately propose that the area already be declared a "Shared Regional Area of Essential Commons" or SRAEC.

Likewise, this conceptual entity must also be outlined according to its factually precise geographic location on the global map. Because it is clearly located within an area bounded by at least seven littoral South-East Asian states all belonging to ASEAN, it should instead be renamed as the "South-East Asian Sea".

In general, the SRAEC has to be recognized and upheld by all the common stakeholders presently involved in the region's long-term future.

They include state and non-state entities, together with various regional organizations and even global institutions. Its basic premise and thrust is to ensure that all the commonly essential natural maritime resources presently found (and yet to be discovered) within the parameters of the South-East Asian Sea must be collectively shared by all stakeholders. This means the region's vast humanity and not a handful of states and their ruling leaders.

Consequently, the South-East Asian Sea's strategic resources cannot be claimed by just a few and in the name of ancient empires that have long ago disappeared into the library of world history. In the context of today's global environmental realities, the South-East Asian Sea must by now be claimed by the many and in the name of a 21st century world order shared by all of humankind.

In pursuing the conceptual framework of a Shared Regional Area of Essential Commons, its independence and neutrality must always be upheld. This means that the SRAEC should assert from its declared onset that it cannot be absolutely claimed (wholly or partially) by any one state or regional entity, such as China or Asean.

And even more so, the SRAEC must not become a conflict zone under the geopolitical maneuverings of any world power, specifically the globally hegemonic thrusts of the United States.

It will certainly not be very easy to change the Beijing-Washington rivalry with respect to their hegemonic agendas over the broader Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, ASEAN is not collectively united in taking a more independent and neutral stance towards both China and the United States.

This is because some countries, such as the Philippines, are highly prone to run to the US as a counterforce to China. Alas, this divide inside ASEAN is already being exploited by Beijing.

In this regard, China continues to strongly push its demands for a more bilateral and regionally focused solution to the current regional dilemma affecting the South-East Asian Sea area. In contrast to this, the United States is pushing for a more multilateral approach to solve the regional contradiction.

In effect, the Chinese want to ensure their clear dominance over their South-East Asian neighbors without any interference from another superpower. And in an almost similar manner, the Americans also seek to once more intervene within the area by realigning pro-US countries from South-East Asia under its imperialist dictation through a geo­strategic coalition, which is aimed at enhancing American control over the South-East Asian region and containing the Chinese's expansionist actions.

Only a SRAEC with a democratically progressive direction and an openly participative process can radically alter the balance of power in this highly crucial corner of the world. And perhaps this may yet become a critically necessary step towards building a more genuinely "caring and sharing" ASEAN common area for all. — Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network

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