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A Volatile Powder Keg: ASEAN and China in the South China Sea, Featuring Mr. Kumer and Mr. Hermida

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

by Sven Stumbauer

Over the past decades, the nation of China has garnered a heavy amount of global influence both politically and economically. However, this has come at the expense of various countries within Southeast Asia that are included in the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, better known as ASEAN.

The US Department of State corroborates this by stating, “Beijing uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states…bully them out of offshore resources,..., [and] assert unilateral dominion." Consequently, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, China is now laying claim to 11 billion barrels of untapped oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic tons of natural gas across the region while creating ports, airstrips, and military bases among islands that they have claimed during their expansion.

To make matters worse, ASEAN has made little progress to address this. Mark Valencia, a well-known policy consultant, states that the organization has made shockingly little progress to address the growing threat China poses, even when conducting a summit amongst itself. By wasting a prime opportunity to inflict accountability on China and catalyze an organized resistance, ASEAN has allowed China’s military to seek unpunished gains within the South China Sea while simultaneously expanding their geopolitical influence; jeopardizing southeast Asian footholds made by the United States and conglomerates such as the EU, NATO, and ASEAN themselves.

In addition, with an overly belligerent China growing hungrier for even more territory in the South China Sea, ASEAN and its collective member states must address the challenge and the only way to do so is by resisting further Chinese encroachment while also ensuring that the nation withdraws from the region entirely through peaceful means. The ways in which ASEAN should address rising Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea are by imposing harsh economic sanctions, unifying the organization’s member states to collectively antagonize China, and collaborating with the United States to establish a non-aggressive military presence.

Plan A: Harsh Economic Sanctions

Currently, China values economic standing and solvency over any other priority that faces them as a nation. Fortunately for ASEAN, they are currently in a pole position to exploit this Chinese gravitation towards profit and turn it right back on them, and the best way to execute this plan is by levying harsh economic sanctions.

According to the Chinese Government itself, trade between it and ASEAN has grown by approximately 13.1% year after year, and most notably, the revenue shared between them reached around half a trillion dollars at the midway point of 2022, demonstrating that these two economies are heavily intertwined. In addition to that, one of the main reasons for ASEAN to shy away from sanctions, being a harsh economic failure and collapse in the short term, can easily be sidetracked.

As substantiated by Kenneth Rogoff, a head economics professor at Harvard University, the decoupling of global value chains which is a strong suit of the Chinese economy, minimally affected GDPs such as the United States and EU, which are conglomerates that are similar to ASEAN who are heavily invested in and economically dependent upon China, demonstrating that economies with similar dependencies on China did not experience long term drawbacks.

Furthermore, by being a much smaller economy both on an organizational level and in regards to member states, ASEAN would also experience a much more minimal shrinkage compared to the aforementioned economic juggernauts. By using their position as China’s main economic breadwinner and the fact that sanctions imposed on China have no tangible cons to them, ASEAN can inflict serious economic damage, and simultaneously avoid a financial punch to the gut. Consequently, with China bleeding massive amounts of money due to these sanctions while also not harming ASEAN in the process, they will ultimately be forced to cede to ASEAN’s demands long term, and considering their encroachment in the South China Sea, the expulsion or halting of China’s expanse in the region is most certainly what ASEAN would want to unfold.

Plan B: Unifying a Group and a Cause

While economic sanctions against China are certainly a good way to initialize ASEAN’s resistance against their encroachment, the plan needs to be executed by a well-oiled and cooperative ASEAN, which currently are not the attributes that best describe them. Due to this, another priority for ASEAN is to unify their cause to collectively antagonize China.

According to Junhua Zhang, a professor at the European Institute for Asian Studies, China has already begun to curb any plans for ASEAN’s full cooperation, as they have recently collaborated with two of ASEAN’s principal states, Vietnam and the Philippines. This paints a dire picture and outlook for ASEAN’s future as the risk of them having to fight not just China, but two of their strongest assets is incredibly harrowing.

Furthermore, ASEAN is scattered in its motivations for pursuing ventures in the South China Sea. Rodolfo Severino, a Filipino diplomat who was also the former chair of ASEAN itself, remarks that the member states of ASEAN along with China have conflicting motivations in the South China Sea. For example, Vietnam is currently seeking territory in the sea to protect itself from Chinese influence, while other countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia are pursuing gains in order to bolster their security as a result of previous invasions in WWII.

As the situation stands and continues to develop, ASEAN and its member states are fully discombobulated in their attempts to establish control in the sea for themselves, which consequently clashes with their goal to dispel Chinese incursion across the region, sidelining not only the individual nations but ASEAN as a whole. If ASEAN is to continue the trend of having a disjointed goal as an organization while simultaneously having their member states run amok in search of individualistic pursuits, they will not only find themselves in a worse situation but also find themselves at ever-growing risk of additional Chinese encroachment upon the region.

Due to these developments and the daunting threat and military of China, ASEAN needs to ensure that they not only collaborate but ensure that they have a proper and clear vision in order to do so.

Plan C: Searching for International Assistance

Despite being a ten-against-one affair, ASEAN and its member states are hopelessly outgunned and outmanned no matter how numerous their member states are. However, allies, including the United States, have and can continue to offset this military disparity.

Todd Moulten, a Lieutenant Commander of the US Navy and the lead of analysis and production at the US Navy’s second fleet corroborates by saying that America has already established a relationship with ASEAN by sending approximately 425 million dollars to deliver equipment to bolster these nations’ maritime security (Moulten, 2022). This indicates that the seed for US assistance within the region has already been planted, and if the US were unwavering in sending the first batch of aid, it is almost certain they will do so again if the time calls for it. Moreover, involvement in the South China Sea has a myriad of benefits for the United States.

As Leszek Buszynski, who taught and acted as the dean of the School for International Relations at the International University of Japan from 1997 to 2010 states, the United States is directly compelled to involve itself in Southeast Asian affairs due to them having their influence across the region strangled with this instance of China’s domineering expansion across the South China Sea. In addition to this, the territory of Guam is relatively far from the conflict, meaning that the United States is incredibly isolated in order to address China, which ASEAN mediates almost immediately due to its proximity to both the South China Sea and the broader region of southeast Asia.

By securing help from the United States, ASEAN would not only have the military presence needed to dissuade China from further expanding across the South China Sea but would also allow them to formalize a long-standing agreement regarding China’s expulsion from the region due to the USA’s diplomatic influence. As a result, collaboration with the world’s most powerful military and country, in general, is a necessity in order to establish a China-free southeast Asia for ASEAN and its members.

Potential Counterclaims and Concerns

While unifying themselves, imposing economic sanctions against China, and collaborating with the United States are all plausible in their own right, there are in fact some noticeable drawbacks and scenarios that need to be considered. For example, the fact that China is already starting to unravel ASEAN’s unity as indicated by Zhang foreshadows the beginning of the potential end regarding any form of a unified cause for the organization.

Moreover, as stated by Valencia, ASEAN’s only chance to unify has come and gone, with another summit between all member nations being highly unlikely due to the lack of a common vision between them in defeating the nation of China in the South China Sea. In addition to this, with the sending of a military presence on the part of the United States potentially in the picture, there is also the threat of Chinese retaliation and further escalation of the conflict. Bonnie Glaser, a senior associate with the Pacific Forum writes by saying that Beijing has decreed that they simply will not stand idly by if a nation decides to chip away at their global influence, with their holding within the South China Sea being a prime example.

If America and ASEAN were to establish this military presence, it could just as likely galvanize China to be further at odds with the US and ASEAN while sending more reinforcements to their already stationed forces within the sea. However, while all of these possibilities are plausible, their actual probability is highly unlikely, due to America’s navy being much more advanced than the one possessed by China in addition to also having an expansive network of nations at their disposal, it unnecessary for China to further escalate the conflict and find their massive influence in jeopardy rather than simply ceding a small part of the pie by withdrawing from the South China Sea.

By doing so, China not only manages to stop a potentially globe-encompassing conflict but also keeps itself safe from having its navy devastated by America. After all, while these concerns are in fact warranted, the sheer improbability for their occurrence is evidence enough that despite the potential flaws, the plan currently proposed is the most beneficial for more parties while also being the most plausible to work.

Columbus Social Studies Teachers Speak

In addition to experts across the globe providing analysis and conflicting opinions on the conflict at hand, two teachers from Christopher Columbus have been able to provide their own unique takes on the brewing conflict between ASEAN and China in the South China Sea. Mr. Kumer, who teaches AP European History and AP Research, provides a stance on both the conflict itself and how America should involve itself in the issue as well:

"The people’s sovereignty should always be protected and the people have the right to protect their sovereignty. If for example, the people of Taiwan do not believe in one Chinese state and consider themselves Taiwanese, they should remain as Taiwanese, they should protect themselves. I don’t think the US should involve themselves in that conflict. In the position of power that we see ourselves globally, we should use that strength to negotiate peaceful outcomes and not look for ways to promote war, which is what we have been doing in our foreign policy now since the twenty-first century. We should look for peaceful outcomes more than using our military, direct or indirect, to push a national agenda," Kumer said.

Along with Mr. Kumer, Mr. Hermida, who teaches AP US History and moderates both the Geography Club and Model UN, provides insight into another factor within the conflict that still remains unresolved:

"There's a reason why the United Nations Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was created. However, it doesn't meet the demands of border disputes in areas such as the South China Sea. My take is that there is a reason why the UN struggles with the UNCLOS, there are areas that make it very difficult to manage the sovereignty of coastal and island nations that are just so close in proximity to one another," Hermida said.

Overall, Mr. Kumer and Mr. Hermida provide a claim to sovereignty that nations are entitled to in addition to the failures of legislation such as UNCLOS respectively that have catalyzed this very conflict. As a result, not only should those with decades of experience in Southeast Asia be invited to the table, but those around us in addition, should be brought into the fold and have the opportunity to provide a voice and insight as to why this conflict is happening, what should be granted to certain parties, and how nations halfway across the world can play a part.

In Conclusion

Due to the developments of China's expansion across the South China Sea, immediate action is required from ASEAN and the world to address the growing threat of China. By imposing harsh economic sanctions, unifying ASEAN’s cause to antagonize China, while also collaborating with the United States, ASEAN can effectively hammer at and reduce China’s grip on the region. Executing this process would not only hamper China economically, militarily, and geopolitically, but it would also pave the way for a long and incredibly strong agreement between the two parties due to the USA’s diplomatic power.

In addition, by effectively sidelining the potential galvanization of the Chinese army by simply having a stronger military capacity with the US involved, ASEAN and America can ensure that this plan is executed to perfection while also delivering a massive blow to Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. In conclusion, despite not being perfect, the current solution outlined is one of, if not the best measures for ASEAN and the world to take in order to eliminate Chinese influence in the South China Sea.


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