April 24, 2015

Indirect Cost Imposition Strategies in the South China Sea: U.S. Leadership and ASEAN Centrality

By Carlyle Thayer

In this final installment in the Maritime Strategy Series of working papers, “Indirect Cost Imposition Strategies in the South China Sea: U.S. Leadership and ASEAN Centrality,” Dr. Carlyle A. Thayer assesses the implications of China’s assertions of control over the South China Sea for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and offers ideas for how the United States can work with Southeast Asian nations to stanch coercive behavior.

According to Dr. Thayer, the pattern of coercive behavior that has emerged over the last several years affects ASEAN itself – not just individual member states – by calling into question the body’s key role in managing security questions in Southeast Asia. As he writes, “China’s assertive and aggressive actions, combined especially with recent land reclamation activities, represent nothing less than the slow and deliberate excision of ASEAN’s maritime heart from the Southeast Asian region.” This danger demands action that will reassert ASEAN centrality and unity, while avoiding the pitfalls of great power conflict that could also impact the region; Dr. Thayer asserts that efforts taken up to now, such as the search for a binding ASEAN-China Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, have been and are likely to be ineffective.

To this end, the main recommendation offered in the paper is an indirect way of building norms and imposing costs: the creation of a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia’s Maritime Domain (as defined by precedents such as the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone). Such a treaty would import existing ASEAN agreements and international law to unify ASEAN around consensus standards, from which position it could then negotiate with China. At the same time, U.S. leadership is needed to build partner capacity, thicken relationships, and bolster deterrence, in order to give ASEAN states the confidence to stick up for ASEAN interests in the face of pressure from China or elsewhere. These two tracks, argues Dr. Thayer, can frustrate and disincentivize coercion without directly confronting China in a way that could be destabilizing.

  • Carlyle Thayer

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