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South China Sea hot enough to bubble over in 2024

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The South China Sea disputes between China and Southeast Asian claimants have become a major flashpoint in the region in 2024. In a significant diplomatic intervention before the New Year, Indonesia, as the outgoing chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), rallied the bloc’s foreign ministers to issue a joint statement calling for restraint and a peaceful resolution to the maritime conflicts.

This joint statement is noteworthy because it is the first time in recent memory that ASEAN has released a standalone statement focused on the South China Sea disputes. While the statement did not directly criticize China, it emphasized the commitment of ASEAN to maintain stability in the maritime region.

By issuing this joint statement, ASEAN rejected the notion, often put forth by Beijing, that the disputes in the South China Sea are solely bilateral concerns among rival claimants. ASEAN’s diplomatic chiefs highlighted the shared responsibility for upholding peace, security, and stability in “our maritime sphere.” It is essential to note that besides China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Taiwan also have contested claims to the South China Sea.

In recent months, there have been escalating tensions between the Philippines and China over the Second Thomas Shoal, where a small Philippine marine detachment has been stationed for over two decades. The Philippines maintains that the disputed feature falls within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), as ruled by the 2016 arbitral tribunal at The Hague. This ruling rejected China’s extensive claims based on international law under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China has warned that it will take decisive measures to prevent the Philippines from refurbishing its military base in the Second Thomas Shoal. China argues that such actions would infringe on its sovereignty, violate international law, and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

The flashpoint nature of the South China Sea disputes has raised concerns globally, with the Philippine ambassador to Washington emphasizing that the region is the flashpoint, not Taiwan. Similar concerns have been expressed due to international worry over Beijing’s potential response to the victory of pro-independence forces in the Taiwanese elections.

Throughout the year, ASEAN has been largely silent on the escalating maritime disputes between the Philippines and China, despite the Philippines being a founding member of the bloc and China being the region’s top trading partner.

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