By INS Contributors

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia: Aggressive moves by China in the hotly disputed South China Sea (SCS) has raised tensions between it and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states with claims in the sea, potentially leading to serious blowback against China’s designs in the area.

These tensions are likely to see certain ASEAN states, particularly Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia moving to build alliances against a common threat as each claim substantial areas of the sea and all have to face illegal incursions, militarised islands harassment and illegal fishing among other challenges.

China seeks to exploit the SCS for its rich fisheries yield as well as mineral and hydrocarbon potential. Building a foothold in the SCS also allows China a jump off point into the Malacca Strait on which it is heavily dependent for its energy security and economic growth.

China relies on the Malacca Straits for the majority of its energy imports, including crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG), which are shipped from the Middle East, Africa, and Russia. According to some estimates, up to 80 percent of China's oil imports pass through the Malacca Straits. Any disruption to the flow of oil through the straits could have severe consequences for China's economy and energy security.

Furthermore, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to expand its trade and investment links with countries along the Indian Ocean, including Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The success of the BRI is heavily dependent on maintaining open and secure sea lanes, including the Malacca Straits.

While some ASEAN member states have formed alliances with the West particularly the US to counter China's growing influence, there are significant challenges to forming an ASEAN alliance against China in the SCS.

One major obstacle to an ASEAN alliance is the divergent interests of its member states. While some, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, are more willing to confront China in the SCS, others, such as Malaysia, have close ties to China and are less willing to challenge Beijing's assertiveness. This division within ASEAN has made it difficult to reach a consensus on the SCS issue, let alone form a united front against China.

Another challenge is the power asymmetry between ASEAN and China with the latter wielding a far greater military and economic clout than any individual ASEAN member state, making it difficult for ASEAN to deter or counter Chinese actions in the SCS. Moreover, China has demonstrated a willingness to use economic coercion and diplomatic pressure to divide and weaken ASEAN's collective stance.

To form an effective ASEAN alliance against China in the SCS, ASEAN member states must overcome these obstacles and develop a common strategy. This strategy could involve greater coordination and information sharing among ASEAN navies, increased diplomatic pressure on China to adhere to international law, and joint economic initiatives that reduce ASEAN's reliance on China.

However, even with a coordinated strategy, an ASEAN alliance would face significant challenges in countering China's aggressiveness in the SCS. Countering China's military capabilities and territorial claims in the region would require a significant military buildup and deterrence posture by the ASEAN alliance. Additionally, China's economic leverage over ASEAN member states could make it difficult for them to implement sanctions or other measures that would hurt China's interests in the region.

Forming an ASEAN alliance against China in the SCS would be a complex and challenging undertaking. While ASEAN member states share concerns about China's actions in the SCS, internal divisions, power asymmetry, and economic dependencies make it difficult to form a united front. Nonetheless, ASEAN member states can still work to strengthen their individual and collective capabilities and push for a peaceful and rules-based resolution to the SCS disputes.

The game changer for ASEAN will naturally be a strong tie up with the West which would help it overcome the immediate military challenge posed by China. Western support would significantly change Beijing strategic calculations in the area and add teeth and laws to any ASEAN counterclaim against China.

Closer cooperation with the West will also legitimise the presence of US and other Western military deployments in the region. It would be a simple matter of ASEAN states calling for and relying on Western capabilities, countering Chinese claims of Western interference in the area.

ASEAN states must also support and encourage “freedom of navigation” exercises in the SCS, by participating in these exercises and providing logistical and other support to ensure the West is able to field ensuring military capabilities in the region.

While China frequently accuses the West of militarising the SCS, it is in fact fearful of a strong Western deployment in the region particularly if that deployment has the support and endorsement of ASEAN states. The West would be able to claim legitimacy in its deployments while China would remain an obvious and isolated aggressor.

Considering Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia do indeed have substantial military capabilities on their own and China can only count on Cambodia at best (Laos being landlocked and Myanmar falling to the Bay of Bengal), the West would be making a wise investment in building and strengthening security alliances with ASEAN partners.