ASEAN Leaders Assert Importance of Free Airspace over South China Sea

Ahmad Syamsudin and Ronna Nirmala
200626-SEA-asean-620.jpg Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (center and on screen) addresses regional leaders during the virtual ASEAN Summit from Hanoi, June 26, 2020.

Updated at 4:07 p.m. ET on 2020-06-26

Southeast Asian leaders on Friday called for maintaining free airspace over the South China Sea in response to reports that Beijing plans to establish an air defense zone as part of its territorial expansion efforts in the contested maritime region.

As they participated in a virtual summit hosted by Vietnam, the heads of government from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations also discussed efforts to restore regional economies ravaged by ripple effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand released statements in addition to an ASEAN vision statement, which spelled out their willingness to work together on COVID-19 recovery efforts.

With regard to the South China Sea, the vision statement said members had agreed to “further reaffirm the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation and over-flight above the South China Sea.”

ASEAN members “further stress the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation,” the joint statement said.

In addition to pursing the “peaceful resolution of disputes” and recognizing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), members agreed to work to establish “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.”

In 2002, the Southeast Asian bloc and China agreed on a Declaration of Conduct, a statement of principles on how parties should behave in the South China Sea. But completing a more detailed and binding Code of Conduct has proved much harder.

ADIZ concerns

On Thursday, Philippines Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana spoke out against reports of China’s plan to establish a so-called Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the skies above the disputed waterway, where Beijing would monitor all aircraft in its claimed territories.

The maritime region is claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan and four ASEAN countries – the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam.

“[C]ountries will treat this ADIZ as illegal and violative of international laws. They would continue to use these waters and airspace, and thus would further raise an already heightening tension and could result in mishaps or miscalculations at sea and in the air,” Lorenza told Philippine media.

An ADIZ is a zone where all civilian aircraft must identify themselves and announce their location. In such a zone, civilian aircraft are tracked and identified before further entering into a country’s airspace, although an ADIZ does not restrict travel in and out of its limits, nor does it usually apply to military aircraft.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the American Air Force commander in the Pacific said that a Chinese move to claim an ADIZ in the South China Sea could have a negative impact on the ability of nations to fly, sail and operate in a free and open Indo-Pacific “wherever international law allows.”

“It really goes against the rules-based international order, and that’s concerning not only for PACAF [Pacific Air Forces] and the United States, but I would say many of the nations in the region,” Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. told reporters.

Pandemic effects

At Friday’s online summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said the COVID-19 pandemic had added a new layer to the rivalry between the United States and China.

“Even as our region struggles to contain COVID-19, alarming incidents in the South China Sea occurred,” he said in his ASEAN address. “We call on parties to refrain from escalating tensions and abide by responsibilities under international law.”

Speaking at the end of the virtual meeting with his counterparts from across the region, the meeting’s host, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, said ASEAN leaders had agreed to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea.

“Disagreements are unavoidable but we also call on the parties to exercise self-restraint and avoid acts that further complicate the situation and to fully observe international law,” he said.

Phuc said both China and the United States were important partners to ASEAN and other countries in the world.

“We do not want to pick one side over the other,” he said.  “And cooperation for mutual benefit, for a regional peace and for the future, we are willing to do that with all countries including China and the U.S.”

Post-pandemic era

Addressing his regional counterparts, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said cooperation among ASEAN countries could be a driving force for stability across Southeast Asia in the post-pandemic era.

“ASEAN must act as a guardian to prevent our region from becoming an arena of power projection by major countries,” Jokowi said.

Phuc said the COVID-19 pandemic was “fanning the flames of dormant challenges” politically, economically and socially.

The number of coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia, home to about 650 million people, has reached nearly 140,000, with nearly 4,000 deaths, the officials said. Globally, COVID-19 has infected more than 9.6 million and killed more than 490,000 as of Friday, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

“Social conflicts stemming from social disparities, discrimination and stigma have deteriorated due to the pandemic, further widening the divide within countries,” Phuc said.

“In such context, countries need to uphold the spirit of solidarity, cooperation and the sense of responsibility towards the international community. The role and mission of major countries, and of multilateral and regional organizations have become more prominent than ever,” he said.

In their statement, the ASEAN leaders said they were committed to implementing a comprehensive economic recovery plan to address the adverse impact of the pandemic on people’s livelihood “with a view to improving stability and resilience of the regional economy, preserving supply chain connectivity, while staying vigilant of a second wave of infections.”

Muhyiddin Yassin, the prime minister of Malaysia, urged his fellow leaders to act swiftly to formulate a COVID-19 recovery plan.

“Time is not on our side and regionally, we are fighting for our economic survival,” he said.

“If we don’t protect our regional economy, wider disparity in growth among the ASEAN countries may harm our objective of greater economic integration,” he said.

Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Thailand’s prime minister, proposed three paths for ASEAN to advance in the post-COVID-19 era, according to a statement released by his office.

His first step called for implementing a master plan on connectivity among the 10 nations. He also called for investing in the digital economy and to establish efforts to create immunity from potential future pandemics.

“ASEAN must also build its strength on biodiversity by using technology and innovation to produce environmentally friendly high-valued goods and services,” Prayuth said.

The Rohingya issue: ‘Malaysia continues to bear the brunt’

Malaysia’s Muhyiddin also called on ASEAN to find a solution for the plight of Rohingya refugees who have fled from violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Malaysia, Thailand and other countries in the region have been criticized in recent months for turning away boatloads of Rohingya refugees.

On Thursday, 99 Rohingya arrived in Indonesia’s Aceh province after fishermen discovered their broken down wooden boat off the coast and brought them to shore. Neighboring Malaysia earlier this month towed in a disabled boat carrying 269 Rohingya.

The country’s defense chief had warned that it would not take in the refugees who were being held at an immigration camp on Langkawi Island, and the government planned to expel them.

“Malaysia continues to bear the brunt of this prolonged crisis, which still appears to have no foreseeable end. We can no longer take more as our resources and capacity are already stretched, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Muhyiddin said in his address to ASEAN members. “Yet, Malaysia is unfairly expected to do more to accommodate incoming refugees.”

Boats with Rohingya aboard have sailed from Myanmar or southeastern Bangladesh, where more than 1 million refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine state are sheltering in camps. While Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation agreement in November 2017, attempts to send Rohingya back to their home country have failed.

Jason Gutierrez in Manila, Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur and Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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