China gets its catch, hook, line and sinker

Posted on July 17, 2012


If there had been any doubt about China’s determination to aggressively pursue its claims to huge swaths of contested territory in the resource-rich seas of the Asia-Pacific, there’s no doubt now.

Beijing is barrelling ahead with new force. In the past few days it has made new deployments of ships, but its greatest success has been in the diplomatic conference halls of the region.

The deployments are deliberately provocative. Beijing angered the Philippines by sending 30 fishing vessels to contested waters in the South China Sea last week just as a major regional meeting of foreign ministers was about to discuss the dispute.

Separately last week, China angered Japan by ordering three government fisheries vessels to disputed waters in the East China Sea. Again, it acted even as its Foreign Minister was about to meet his Japanese counterpart to discuss the matter. A furious Japan recalled its ambassador for consultations in response.

Rival vessels, usually civilian but sometimes military, have clashed in at least 22 serious incidents in the South China Sea in the past three years over contested claims, mostly involving Chinese shipping in conflict with Filipino or Vietnamese vessels, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

And while none of the disputants is entirely blameless, China’s latest behaviour demonstrates that it is not in a conciliatory frame of mind. If anything, Beijing is quite prepared to inflame the situation.

Could this be a misinterpretation of amiable Chinese intentions? The answer came resoundingly last week at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, the area’s main gathering to discuss political and security issues.

ASEAN is the 10-nation grouping of the countries of south-east Asia – Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

In recent years it has insisted on being the central mechanism for mediating regional disputes.

The US decided to take ASEAN seriously. The Obama administration coached ASEAN to stand up to China en bloc by crafting a code of conduct for dealing with disputes in the South China Sea.

The aim was to reduce tension. By putting all 10 ASEAN members on one side of the table and China on the other, the south-east Asians would have much greater heft in dealing with Beijing collectively.

”No nation can fail to be concerned by the increase in tensions, the uptick in confrontational rhetoric and disagreement over resource exploitation,” the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said, as she egged them on last week. It was important, she said, that the disputes be resolved ”without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without use of force”.

Other regional countries, including India, Australia and South Korea, also willed ASEAN to tackle the issue. The ASEAN bloc in general, and the code of conduct in particular, were to be the central diplomatic defence against Chinese aggression. But the Chinese had other ideas.

Beijing split ASEAN spectacularly last Thursday. A meeting of its foreign ministers not only failed to agree on the code of conduct, but also failed for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history to agree on a standard communique to record its discussion.

Using its considerable influence over the host country, Cambodia, China effectively wielded a veto on ASEAN. By blocking even a communique, it censored any official record that the South China Sea disputes were even discussed.

Beijing pushed through the central diplomatic defence against its assertiveness as easily as if it were wet rice paper.

The chairman, Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Hor Namhong, told reporters after the meeting that he ruled out a communique because ”I have told my colleagues that the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers is not a court, a place to give a verdict about the dispute”. The Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary, Albert Del Rosario, said he had ”simply wanted the fact that we discussed the issue and it should be reflected in the joint communique, no more, no less. It would have just been a simple sentence or paragraph in the communique.”

When the Philippines and Vietnam failed to persuade Hor, Indonesia and Singapore argued for a compromise. But, according to The New York Times, ”the Cambodian picked up his papers, and stormed out of the room.” Quoting an unnamed diplomat, the American newspaper said ”China bought the chair, simple as that”.

In this way, China made a mockery of ASEAN solidarity and flummoxed the US. ”China has thrown down the gauntlet,” says Mike Green, formerly the director of Asia policy in the George W. Bush White House and co-author of a forthcoming report to the US Congress on American strategy in the South China Sea. ”It shows that ASEAN centrality has an easy and early breaking point. This is not the only way to deal with China’s ambitions, but it was an important one.”

Green, who supports the Obama strategy in the South China Sea, suspects China’s thinking was that, if it could defeat this initiative developed under Hillary Clinton’s tutelage, it could defer the entire confrontation to the term of the next US secretary of state. With elections due in November, Clinton plans to step down.

”China has won a tactical victory, but a strategic defeat,” Green argues. ”Because this will increase the instinct of the other countries in the region to keep the US in.”

He predicts the US will respond by further intensifying its alliances and by seeking to help countries that are in dispute with China.

Meanwhile, China is pressing ahead with bracing advice to the weakest countries it confronts in its territorial disputes. According to state media, China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, told the Philippines last week it had to ”face facts squarely and not to make trouble”.

Peter Hartcher

Beijing plays divide and conquer to win in South China Sea

Recent press coverage on the long-simmering South China Sea dispute gives the impression that the territorial argument is becoming a potential flashpoint for armed conflict and an increasingly sharp-elbowed strategic tussle between the United States and China.

The rising risk of armed skirmishes involving Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese naval or official vessels in the disputed areas is certainly worrisome. A year ago, Vietnam protested angrily after a Chinese patrol boat cut a multi-million-dollar seismic surveillance cable used by a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship in areas claimed by both countries.

This spring, a Philippine naval cutter and several Chinese fishery patrol boats engaged in a standoff for several weeks at the contested Scarborough Shoal before Beijing and Manila reached a temporary compromise. Last week, a Chinese warship ran aground in the contested Spratly Islands, uncomfortably close to the Philippine island of Palawan.

In the meantime, a game of great powersis also unfolding over the troubled waters. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shocked Beijing two years ago by declaring that the South China Sea was a “vital interest” of the United States, throwing Washington’s weight behind China’s rivals, the geopolitical stakes of the dispute were raised significantly.

Washington initially exploited Beijing’s mistakes in recent years – such as its rejection of multilateral negotiations and excessive use of strong-arm tactics – and helped to stiffen the resolve of some of the claimants, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. In retrospect, the Clinton shock was the opening move of Washington’s East Asian “pivot”, a momentous reorientation of the US security focus towards the region.

Inside China, a consensus was quickly formed. On a broader strategic level, the US pivot was perceived as a hostile move, if not a clear step towards a more explicit containment strategy. In the South China Sea dispute, Beijing viewed Washington’s policy shift as insidious meddling in a quarrel in which it should not get involved, and also as the cause of the growing defiance by Vietnam and the Philippines.

But after recovering from its greatest diplomatic setback since Tiananmen, the Chinese government seems to have settled on a counter-strategy. Contrary to expectations of a more flexible negotiating approach – embracing a multilateral approach, declaring adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and signing a code of conduct – Beijing refused to budge.

China has opted for a negotiating position that seems increasingly untenable and counterproductive. A possible reason is that Beijing understands that its much-criticised “nine-dotted line”, which essentially claims the entire South China Sea as Chinese maritime territory, cannot be supported by existing international law.

Incidentally, Vietnam has made the same expansive claims as China, but unlike Beijing, Hanoi has agreed to both multilateral negotiations and adherence to the principles of international law. Hanoi understands that such a stance favours it since Vietnam controls about 80 per cent of the features (ie, rocks and reefs) in the most contested Spratly Islands.

Hanoi’s effective control would help it gain legal recognition of its claims to the surrounding waters under existing international laws.By contrast, China controls only six features and would have to settle for much less should it agree to resolve the dispute according the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

So the essence of Beijing’s strategy is delay and denial. China apparently believes that by prolonging the current stalemate, it will deny the other contestants, principally Vietnam and the Philippines, the opportunity to gain legal recognition of their claims and access to the rich natural resources in the disputed areas.

China wants to resolve the dispute, but only on its own terms.And that will only be possible once China achieves uncontested regional dominance and the other claimants have no choice but to accede to Chinese terms.

Beijing is obviously aware that its strategy, in the short term at least, incurs huge diplomatic costs. To offset these costs, China has tried to gain support from some South-East Asian nations so that the other claimants are not able to forge a regional alliance on this issue to isolate China.

Since the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), to which all the other claimants belong, can reach decisions only based on consensus, all China needs to do is to make sure that a small number of members are sympathetic to China and refuse to back a collective stance that would undermine its position.

Because China has ample economic resources to achieve this goal, it may have already succeeded to a considerable degree.In last week’s Asean summit of foreign ministers in Cambodia, the regional bloc was unable to reach a common position on the South China Sea dispute, a clear victory for Beijing.

But the Chinese strategy is not without risks. Absent a diplomatic solution, China can only expect confrontations with the Philippines and Vietnam over fishing and natural resource exploration to continue and escalate. In the worst-case scenario, accidents could turn into naval skirmishes.

Given China’s preference for peace and stability in its neighbourhood, one has to wonder whether Beijing has taken precautions to prevent such crises. We can only hope it has.

Minxin Pei

Posted in: Politics