Sinking feeling in the South China Sea

Posted on July 26, 2012

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The unprecedented failure of the 45th Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in June to issue a joint communique that captured the decisions of the meeting was as disappointing as it was predictable.

Prior to this, ASEAN, whose current motto is “One Community, One Destiny”, had never failed to issue a collective statement at the conclusion of their annual summit in its 45-year history. At the meeting, the current ASEAN chair, Cambodia, thwarted Philippines’ push to include a statement on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea on grounds that it did not want to add to the rising political temperature on the matter.

The absence of the joint communique was nothing short of a monumental disappointment and presents a potentially morale-sapping loss of face on the bloc’s part to its powerful regional northern neighbor, China in dealing in the issue. The failure of ASEAN to agree and endorse a common position on this divisive matter is effectively an act of ignoring the elephant in the room and a glaring display of disunity among its member nations.

Seen in the context of ASEAN acting as the protector of regional unity and a shield against external powers’ influence, one could be forgiven for thinking that ASEAN centrality is cracking under pressure from the sheer weight of the issue.

Four ASEAN nations, namely Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, claim parts of the South China Sea, which are also claimed by Taiwan. China claims the entire sea based on what it says are its historical rights. Prior to the meeting, ASEAN could not agree on facing China as a bloc in discussing disputes in the sea. There was reluctance from member nations that have no claims in the sea and did not want to risk upsetting China over the matter.

Following the diplomatic impasse in Phnom Penh, it would take a major effort for ASEAN to pick itself up and muster the will to negotiate collectively with China in addressing disputes in the sea. By succeeding in preventing ASEAN from coming up with a united position on the issue, China would not be wrong to see the Phnom Penh meeting as a triumphant outcome of its strategy of not wanting to engage the issue on a multilateral basis, inadvertently splitting ASEAN in the process.

Feeling cornered
The upshot of the ASEAN meeting has been described in unfavorable terms by several analysts. Phrases such as “step in the wrong direction” and “act of obstinacy” have been used to describe Cambodia’s failure to take charge of the meeting and to preserve ASEAN unity. China was accused of causing a rift among ASEAN members and of capitalizing on ASEAN divisions on the disputes in the sea. ASEAN was seen as disjointed and lacking in autonomy in its handling of the matter.

To blame the situation on Cambodia, China and ASEAN alone for the outcome of the meeting would not do justice to the complex interplay of actors and factors related to the issue. The influence of external powers weighed heavily over the matter. The failure of ASEAN to come up with a common position on the issue is as much a perhaps unintended end-result of the “pivot to Asia” policy of the US, a key external protagonist in the region, as it is a result of Cambodia’s and China’s conduct and ASEAN’s split opinion on the subject.

The US has half-heartedly, and at times awkwardly, tried to disassociate its “rebalancing in Asia” strategy with China’s rising influence in the region. In doing so, it has only succeeded in fueling China’s perception that the policy is a calculated construct to contain its growing power and clout. Feeling cornered, China has come out assertively to defend what it sees as its “undisputable sovereign right” over the entire South China Sea. This chain of actions and reactions has significantly contributed to the convoluted situation in the sea today.

How has the US factor influenced the current state of play in the sea? It has been suggested by several analysts that the pluck shown by Vietnam and Philippines in standing up to China in the sea was a by-product of US involvement in the matter. Emboldened by Washington’s pronouncements that it has a “national interest” in the sea and what they interpret as US siding with them in their disputes with China, Hanoi and Manila have reacted more assertively towards Beijing compared to other claimant states.

Other developments such as the deployment of US Marines in Darwin, Australia; the US proposal to deploy Littoral Combat Ships in the region using Singapore as its base; the resumption of military ties between US and Indonesia; and the launch of US-led Trans Pacific Partnership economic pact that excludes China were also interpreted by China as part of a grand American design to contain Beijing’s growing might and ambition in the region.

Despite its professed commitment to work with ASEAN towards coming up guidelines to implement the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, China has never shown itself to be comfortable with the idea of elevating the political document to a legally binding Code of Conduct that would govern their conducts in the sea, prevent conflicts and manage disputes among them. China sees signing up to such a code as potentially curtailing its strategic options in the vast, resources-rich sea.

China has kept itself busy looking for signs of Washington attempting to build a soft alliance in the region to contain Beijing. It perceived the visit by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in June 2012 and the strongly worded description by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to Phnom Penh just before the ASEAN meeting that China’s conduct in the sea could end up becoming a “recipe for confrontation” as evidences of this intention.

Gaps in ASEAN defenses
The signs were already on the wall that Cambodia, a close ally of China, would break ranks from its ASEAN fellowship and not risk defying Beijing.

An early indication of China exerting its powerful influence on Cambodia was when its Premier Wen Jiabao stressed during the 20th ASEAN Summit in Bali in November 2011 that disputes in the sea should only be discussed between the claimants and not at the ASEAN level, and warned against the involvement of “outside powers” on the matter. Subsequently, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Cambodia in March 2012, a move seen by analysts as pressuring the ASEAN chair not to raise South China Sea disputes in the recent ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.

On account of the failure of the meeting to agree on a common position on the subject, fears that China would coerce Cambodia into dropping the disputes in the sea from the discussion were not misplaced.

This move was seen by many analysts as consistent with Beijing’s insistence of not wanting to “‘internationalize”‘ the disputes in the sea and preference of discussing the matter on a bilateral basis. This approach works to its advantage on several counts; first, it can exercise its might and muscle in direct discussions with claimant states; second, it prevents ASEAN from taking a common position on the disputes hence preventing the bloc from discussing the matter on a multilateral platform.

One outcome against China’s interest arising from its approach is the involvement of external powers in the issue. This, China feels strongly about; it has directly told the US not to interfere on the matter, which Beijing sees as a regional dispute to be settled among the claimant states. Washington said its “national interest” in the sea covers ensuring freedom of navigation and seeing to it that disputes are settled peacefully and using international law as a basis, and it has offered to play a role in the process. This irked China which resisted US advances to mediate, denouncing it as an unwelcome “interference”.

Cambodia’s perceived kow-towing to China has to be looked at in the context of China being a major investor and donor to the country, which is one of the least developed in the ASEAN region. China, through its national oil company, CNOOC, has reportedly invested US$200 million in an exploratory well off the coast of Cambodia. Drilling in this area labeled Block F reportedly started in December 2011.

For a country like Cambodia, whose economy is often described in the unflattering term of being “impoverished”, gaining a new source of revenue from offshore fossil fuels would be most welcome. It is also a country ravaged by war in the 1970s and memories of the US bombings that killed numerous people are not easily erased from the minds of Cambodians. Hence, their gratitude to China’s economic aid and investment is not to be taken lightly.

Despite Prime Minister’s Hun Sen insistence that Cambodia was “not being bought” by anyone in relation to its ties with China, many are not convinced that Phnom Penh is completely independent from Beijing’s influence. On account of its handling of the ASEAN meeting, Cambodia has done little to dispel the perception that it does the bidding of China at the expense of the much cherished ASEAN spirit of togetherness and centrality in regional affairs.

Wither peace and stability in the sea?
Even optimists will not be encouraged by the recent turn of events in the South China Sea.

Going into the recent ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, there was motivation on the part of ASEAN and China to work towards a binding code to prevent one another from acting out of turn and maintain peace and stability in the sea. Judging from the outcome of the meeting, one fears that this enthusiasm will be doused and efforts by ASEAN and China to realize a Code of Conduct could grind to a halt as a result of the loss of goodwill between the two.

Adding fuel to an already tense situation, it was reported around the time of the ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh that three Chinese patrol vessels were spotted near Senkaku/Diaoyu Island, which China and Japan claim. This was followed by a statement by US State Department that the island falls within the ambit of a treaty – deemed “illegal and invalid” by Beijing – which requires US to defend Japan should the island come under attack. Japan upped the ante by mulling to purchase the island from its current ‘private owner’, to the annoyance of China.

This side development should not be seen as separate from the situation in the South China Sea, albeit happening in the East Sea and not involving ASEAN members. It provides clues to how China could potentially behave in South China Sea. It demonstrated that China was in no mood to show its soft side in safeguarding its maritime interests, a move probably orchestrated and timed with the coming change in leadership in Beijing to send certain cryptic messages to its regional neighbors and the international community.

On July 14, a Chinese naval frigate vessel ran aground near Half Moon Shoal, a disputed feature in the South China Sea and within Philippines’ EEZ, and China dispatched several vessels to rescue it. It could have turned differently had the vessel not able to be set loose and had the rescue party lingered in the area, with Philippines surveillance aircraft and ships monitoring the situation. A month earlier, a tense stand-off occurred between Chinese and Philippines vessels in Scarborough Shoal, another disputed feature located about 500 km from Half Moon Shoal. It could have gotten out of hand if it wasn’t for frenzied diplomatic efforts by both sides to avert a confrontation.

What followed was a move by Vietnam to introduce a law that enshrines its claims on the disputed Paracel and Spratlys Islands, which China branded a “serious violation” of its sovereignty. In retaliation, China upgraded the status of Sansha county to an administrative level prefecture to oversee the governance of South China Sea, and launched “combat-ready” patrols in the sea. All these developments further stoked the political temperature in the sea and underscored the need for a code to govern the conducts of the principal actors in the sea and avoid confrontation among them.

Taking all these developments into account, it would take an optimistic person to bet that things will cool off in the sea in the near future. It does not appear that ASEAN will come up with a consensus on how to address the issue of disputes in the sea with China anytime soon. Despite the progress made by ASEAN and China in developing guidelines on the Declaration of Conduct, there is little to suggest that China will want to sign up to a legally binding agreement in the form of Code of Conduct in the foreseeable future.

As for the US, it will continue to issue reminders that it has a strategic interest in the South China Sea and reiterate its desire to see freedom of navigation to be preserved and a peaceful solution to disputes is reached in the sea. Vietnam and Philippines are expected to continue on the tangent of not mincing words in facing China’s conduct in the sea, while other claimant states are not expected to follow suit.

These, combined with the prospect of China continuing to avoid discussing disputes over the sea multilaterally and vehemently rejecting US involvement in the matter, do not inspire confidence that there will be a sharp change of positions among the key protagonists. In fact, it is feared that the maintenance of the status quo will lead to further hardening of positions among them that would put paid to efforts to seek a peaceful solution and legal redress to solving disputes in the area.

Until there emerge “game changers” that drive the principal actors to take different approaches, it will be difficult to imagine the situation to change for the better in the foreseeable future. One just hopes that all parties will take serious stock of the situation and not further aggravate it. Demonizing and pointing accusatory fingers to one another will not help in calming things down or help untangle the complex situation.

Time and again, the parties involved profess to wanting to settle disputes peacefully and reiterate their commitment to maintaining peace and stability. More than ever, they must show absolute commitment to back these platitudes with serious, meaningful actions. Talk is cheap; they must walk the talk and prevent escalation of tension at all costs and work towards harmonizing their multiple interests and finding an enduring solution to their competing territorial claims in the sea based on the spirit of neighborliness and friendship and guided by international principles and law.

As chair of ASEAN, Cambodia should not forsake the greater regional interest over its own narrow interest. China should refrain from taking aggressive, provocative actions that may create tension and trigger conflict in the sea. It should live up to its pronouncements to become a “good friend, good neighbor, good partner” to its regional neighbors and seek peaceful resolution to the disputes.

The US should also explore ways to contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the sea in a way which would not antagonize anyone, threaten ASEAN centrality within the regional security architecture and upset the strategic balance.

For their part, ASEAN and China should step up efforts to implement the guidelines of the Declaration of Conduct and work towards establishing a Code of Conduct in the sea between them. The claimant states in the sea should also engage one another in cooperative and collaborative initiatives in areas such as fishery management; environmental protection; navigation safety; crime at sea prevention; search and rescue; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; and capacity building. Such engagements help to build trust and confidence among them that will soothe frayed nerves over the disputes.

Hope springs eternal and one hopes greater interests will prevail over narrower ones in the sea. All parties must avoid excarbating the situation and shun provocative moves that can sink hopes of finding peaceful resolution to the disputes in sea. Their collective fate and vast global trade, economic and strategic interests intertwine and lie in the sea. The eyes of the international community will be firmly focused on the actions and reactions of the key players to ensure good order, peace, security and stability reign in this vital waterway.

Nazery Khalid

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Posted in: Politics