A year ago, the Nguyen Thai Hoc Foundation initiated a petition to change the name of the South China Sea to the Southeast Asia Sea. In the statement found on the Change.org website, the foundation urged Southeast Asians to sign the petition to change name of the sea to better reflect the region.
While China claims that historical documents prove that there should not be a name change, the petition lists three facts in support of the name change:
1. The United Nations has officially recognised the region and named it “Southeast Asia”.
2. The countries of Southeast Asia encompass almost the entire South China Sea with a total coastline measuring approximately 130,000 kilometers (81,250 miles) long; whereas China’s coastline measures about 2,800 kilometers (1,750 miles) in length.
3. Freedom of navigation on the sea is not restricted to a specific country. It is a common heritage of mankind and has actually been used by the international community for centuries as the second most important water channel in the world.
The foundation’s petition has an ambitious goal of 500,000 signatures before submission to the governments of the 11 Southeast Asian countries, the President of United Nations Atlas of the Oceans and the CEOs and Presidents of 12 geographic organizations around the world, calling for a name change.
A year on, it has only reached about 50,000 signatures, 1/10 of their target. But it has since been reinvigorated following heated arguments between the Chinese and Filipino governments over Scarborough Shoal (you can read Rieya’s analysis about it HERE).
There’s no doubt about the historical context to the name. The Malayan Peninsula was named “Nanyang” (南洋) by the Chinese in the 1950s because of the sea. In Malaysia there is still a Chinese-language paper called the Nanyang Siang Pau that has existed since the 1900s. (Of course, I can only speak of Malayan history, acknowledging this watery territory was named after our Chinese partner, having shared 38 years of diplomacy relations together.)
Even if everyone were to accept the modern context to the region of Southeast Asia, it will not be as easy as changing the name of a body of water. There will be plenty of wrangling back and forth. It will very likely come down to military power. In case this territorial dispute erupts into a regional war, it is no secret that China’s military power outweighs any military organisation Southeast Asian countries will be able to muster.
Perhaps this is why China is not interested in playing nice. With a stabilising economic status and a growing ego, it does not shy away from disagreement with other nations. China is in need of natural resources under the sea bed to fuel their country’s development. Apart from the Scarborough Shoal disagreement with the Philippines, China is also involved in a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands (also known as Diaoyu Islands to China), a long struggle with many other countries over the Spratly Islands and with the Vietnamese authorities over the Paracel Islands.
This has resulted in what was perceived as a diplomatic failure at the recent ASEAN meeting, where, for the very first time, the countries could not even agree, on what language to use to voice their dissatisfaction with China’s heavy-handedness and stubbornness in claiming the sea and land surrounding their country.
The “ASEAN way”, once held up as a peaceful, diplomatic way to settle disputes, is now seen as a helpless. More and more grassroots organisations question the lack of authority of the 10-member countries. ASEAN has been accused of not giving voice to the wants and needs of the region. Instead, it is seen as the newest venue of a tug-of-war for superpower sovereignty between the United States of America (who have been eager to support the Philippines and Japan) and China.
What does the low response to this petition really spell for ASEAN and Southeast Asia? ASEAN is a detached entity that many Southeast Asians find themselves unable to relate to because the actions of the governments never quite connect with its people. Does the average Southeast Asian really care to stop and think about regional politics?
It comes as no surprise as well, as many of these countries’ governments are often in conflict with its people when it comes to local issues. Struggling against their governments, Southeast Asians rarely have the time to to think about their neighbours or the region as a whole, and only pay attention when it affects their own economy. (Indonesia seems to be the exception to this rule, balancing their local politicking with an active role in ASEAN. It is now recognised as a pillar even when the rest of ASEAN seems to be falling apart.)
It will take many years for Southeast Asia to produce statesmen who will be able to deal with local politics, yet instill enough consciousness in their countrymen to focus on wider regional issues and create genuine regional unity. But something has to start, and it has to start now.