U.S.: China threaten Southeast Asian peace

Posted on July 26, 2012


The Chinese government is taking a dual approach to consolidating its territorial claims in the South China Sea. A recent softening of the country’s diplomatic line amid a simultaneous deployment of military assets reveals a nuanced carrot-and-stick approach.

Meanwhile, the ties that bind the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have become dangerously frayed. China’s rising power and Washington’s tacit aim of forming an anti-China alliance in the region may exacerbate longstanding rivalries to the general detriment of Asian stability.

The announcement by the Chinese military of plans to station a permanent military presence in the South China Sea has raised the stakes. China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) on Sunday approved the deployment of a division-level military garrison to “Sansha City”.

The jurisdiction of “Sansha”, officially incorporated last month, covers the entirety of China’s claims in the South China Sea. The administrative center of the city is on Woody Island – one of the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands – in the north of the contested maritime region. Furthermore, a mayor was elected to perform political duties for area’s roughly 1,000-strong semi-permanent Chinese residents. [1]

This strengthening of an assertive military and political stance came amid a significant softening of China’s diplomatic tone on the regional dispute. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was quick to express approval of a recent ASEAN six-point statement on the South China Sea. A glowing report from the semi-official China Daily stated that ASEAN’s six point proposal “goes in line with China’s ever-lasting will of turning the disputed waters into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation”. [2] More tellingly, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed approval of the document, and is “open to consultations with the ASEAN on the conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea”.

China has previously attempted to resolve its disputes with other claimants in the South China Sea on a purely bilateral basis, knowing full well it has massive leverage over its smaller neighbors. For the Foreign Ministry to rapidly assent to addressing the issue in a communal ASEAN context reveals an important shift in diplomatic strategy. The fact that this relaxing of the diplomatic tract came simultaneously with increased military deployment is indicative of China’s dual strategy. China can neither afford to appear weak, nor to appear as an aggressive regional hegemon.

The substance of the six-point agreement itself is far from radical. ASEAN agreed to “fully implement” and support the guidelines the Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea (DOC), conclude a regional code of conduct, respect relevant international law such as the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, continue with the use of non-military methods, and find a peaceful resolution of the conflict. [3] The DOC is a decade-old agreement between China and ASEAN that seeks to resolve territorial disagreements in the South China Sea peacefully, and maintain freedom of navigation in the area. With the new six-point plan, the relevant parties have essentially assented to a continuation of the status quo, while eschewing military conflict, and working on long-term mechanisms for resolving the conflict.

Far more interesting than the six-point agreement itself is the diplomatic clash that preceded it. The recent ASEAN Foreign Minister meeting in Cambodia was the first summit in ASEAN’s existence in which the bloc failed to issue a joint communique. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong blamed “two countries” – almost certainly Vietnam and the Philippines – for the failure to reach an agreement. Cambodia had resisted Filipino and Vietnamese calls to address the recent escalation of tensions in the South China Sea in a joint statement. Namhong stressed that the bloc “does not stand up against China, but negotiates with China based on the DOC”. [4]

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was able to salvage the six-point statement from this diplomatic wreckage. [5] Natalegawa employed some serious “shuttle diplomacy” in order to hammer out a somewhat watered-down agreement a few days after the official meeting. Indonesia’s status as the largest ASEAN member, and the country’s friendly relationship with both China and the United States, undoubtedly helped the formation of a compromise.

The recent ASEAN impasse represents a potentially ominous turn in regional geopolitics. Current territorial disputes in the South China Sea are several decades old, but the meteoritic rise of China and the ongoing exploration of energy resources in the area are raising tensions to a dangerous level. Add to these issues the US “pivot” towards Asia, and there exists a noxious brew of geopolitical ambition, a scramble for energy, and old-fashioned nationalism.

Despite public assurances to the contrary, US overtures towards the Philippines and Vietnam, and the planned deployment of 60% of the US fleet in Asia, are aimed to a large degree at containing Chinese power. China’s complaints of a lingering “Cold War” mindset in Washington have a basis in reality. What Washington had not expected was for its nascent anti-Chinese alliance to provoke a regional backlash.

Historic conflict and nationalistic rivalries between Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Indonesia, have existed for many hundreds of years. These tensions have largely subsided in recent decades, but old fires could be rekindled in the event of the US and China forming rival alliances. This unfortunate dynamic is already in play to some degree. For example, US backing for Vietnam drives the historically Vietnamese-wary Cambodians into China’s open arms. America simply cannot count on uniting a diverse ASEAN against China solely on behalf of two member states.

Southeast Asia’s people have suffered tremendously over three decades of futile and bloody war in the last century. It is in no nation’s interest – be it an ASEAN member, or China and the United States, for maritime disputes to threaten the region’s impressive economic growth and social development.

China’s commitment to develop a legal mechanism for resolving the various South China Sea disputes in an ASEAN context is a hopeful sign. The deployment of troops in the region is in all likelihood primarily aimed at defending domestic pride rather than expansionist ambitions. It seems extremely unlikely that any claimant in the South China Sea will attack a rival’s military forces, especially while a legally binding agreement is in the works.

Rising tensions in the South China Sea are significant, less for the territorial disagreements themselves than for the geopolitical changes they exacerbate. China must advance its interests while avoiding a scenario where China scares its neighbors into an anti-Chinese alliance. Above all, China does not want to appear as an expansionist power and thereby frighten smaller nations into welcoming the US as a counterbalance to China’s power.

The US must tread carefully while looking for regional leverage over China. US preeminence has dominated the globe for over six decades, but the unipolar world order is coming to an end. Either side in a superpower conflict can exploit historic and nationalist rivalries for its own purposes. China’s economic influence over America’s Asian allies is increasing exponentially, and the Middle Kingdom’s cultural and historical ties with its neighbors are deep-rooted. If regional states are forced to take sides in a Sino-American Cold War, the US may be the one given a cold shoulder.

Notes: 1. Mayor elected in China’s newly established Sansha city, China Daily, Jul 23, 2012.
2. ASEAN principles in accord with China’s policy on South China Sea settlement, China Daily, July 22, 2012.
3. Palace optimistic over 6-point joint statement of ASEAN member states following Indonesia’s initiative, Zambo Times, Jul 22, 2012.
4. ASEAN principles in accord with China’s policy on South China Sea settlement, China Daily, Jul 22, 2012.
5. Indonesia saves ASEAN’s face, Asia Times Online, Jul 24, 2012.

Brendan P O’Reilly

Posted in: Politics