Edcel John A. Ibarra, Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) of the Foreign Service Institute, shared his views on the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in managing the South China Sea disputes at the 5th Ocean Dialogue held in Hanoi, Vietnam on 18 June 2019 with the theme “ASEAN Cooperation on the South China Sea.”
Mr. Ibarra acknowledged that while ASEAN plays an indispensable role in preventing and managing maritime incidents, promoting cooperation, and building mutual trust and confidence through the ASEAN-China dialogue mechanism, particularly the conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea, it could not address all the key issues in the South China Sea. ASEAN therefore has to be flexible on the modality of regional cooperation on managing the disputes.
Mr. Ibarra mentioned that not all key issues have to be discussed at the level of the ASEAN-China dialogue relations. Some issues are best handled by a smaller group of states, such as the settlement of territorial titles and the delimitation of maritime boundaries, in which only the claimant states should be involved. Other issues require the participation of external states, such as freedom of navigation, which should also involve the user states of the South China Sea.
Mr. Ibarra clarified that flexibility does not necessarily undermine ASEAN centrality. Initiatives can be set up under existing ASEAN frameworks, and reporting structures can also be established to maintain the core position of ASEAN in regional affairs.
Mr. Ibarra was joined in the panel discussion by Ms. Hoang Thi Ha, Lead Researcher for Political and Security Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute based in Singapore; Dr. Andrew Chubb, Adjunct Associate with the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program at Columbia University; and Dr. Ngeow Chow Bing, Director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya.
The event was organized by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Konrad Adenauer Foundation) in Vietnam, the Foundation for East Sea (South China Sea) Studies, and the Australian Embassy in Vietnam.
Around 70 officials and experts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government agencies of Vietnam, foreign diplomatic missions based in Hanoi, and Vietnamese universities participated in the Dialogue.
The event was part of the Ocean Dialogue Series established in 2017, which aims to raise public awareness on maritime challenges in the South China Sea. The previous dialogues discussed ocean governance, fishery management, the law of the sea, and marine plastic pollution.