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Unfolding Strategic Competition in Asia

ASEAN Flags

By Major General Dipankar Banerjee (Veteran)

Blogging from the ASEAN Think Tank Summit

Chonburi, Thailand

Morning, 5 July, 2016

Strategic Studies Centre (SSC) of the Thai Army is the host institute for the conference. It was raised in April 1979, a crucial period for the region. Just at that time, from 17 Feb to 16 April, China attacked Vietnam on its northern borders, overrunning three provinces. Both sides had declared victory but, everyone knew who had actually won. Deng Xiaoping’s much vaunted and pre-announced “teach a lesson” war had taught a lesson to the PLA instead.

But, the first shot in the new Southeast Asian war had been fired. It’s reverberations continue to this day.

The US withdrawal from Vietnam created a void and great anxiety in ASEAN. Much diplomacy and confidence-building efforts followed. The process for the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) began and India participated.

Much has happened in the region since then.

ASEAN is a “Community”. It’s cohesion is better, yet it is no match to China.

South China Sea Dispute

China rejects UN arbitration over the South China Sea Dispute. | Photo Courtesy: Talk Weather

China rejects UN arbitration over the South China Sea Dispute. | Photo Courtesy: Talk Weather

The scene of conflict today has shifted to the sea. To the South China Sea in particular, though the East China Sea and the Scarborough Shoals loom large as well. Indonesia too, has responded late to this dispute. President Widodo will be visiting the Natuna Islands.

Vietnam articulated a strong theme—resolving sea disputes on the basis of International Law. In precisely a week, on 12 July, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration under UNCLOS 1982, is likely to announce its verdict to the Philippines appeal.

In theory, its decision is binding on the parties. But, China has not participated and has announced that it will not recognize its ruling. 

Talks for evolving a Code of Conduct between China and the ASEAN, falters.

The Deputy Director of the Vietnam Institute for Defence Strategy, a serving Major General, passionately pleaded to halt island construction and accept international law. Meanwhile, China is carrying out massive augmentation of island territory. On the other hand, talks for evolving a Code of Conduct between China and the ASEAN, falters. All attempts at pursuing resolution at other important regional and international forums have made no progress.

For the first time, in my over three decades of engagement in the region, have I encountered such a collective sense of frustration with China. However, this should not be exaggerated. Each country in Southeast Asia has more to do with China than any other. Their prosperity and new found wealth depends on China.The Chinese Political Counselor in Bangkok pleaded China’s cause firmly, but it had few takers. It’s response is scheduled for tomorrow.


Major General Banerjee has served in the Infantry Branch of the Indian Army for 36 years. For the last three decades, he has been associated at senior positions in the Think Tank community in India, the region and the world.

Featured Image Source: Skynavin via Shutterstock