China’s new city: Is this Beijing’s pivot?

Posted on August 9, 2012

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A ceremony to mark the establishment of Sansha City is held on Yongxing Island, south China’s Hainan province, on July 24. (AP photo)

It’s not relocating aircraft carriers to the Pacific or stationing 2,500 marines in Australia but China’s provocative establishment of a new city, Sansha, in the disputed Paracels chain takes the geopolitical drama in the South China Sea to a new stage. This escalating assertiveness may have a larger strategic importance as part of Beijing’s response to the often touted US “pivot” or rebalancing in Asia.

Proclaiming a new city on the 2 kilometres long atoll in the South China Sea (population some 150 fishermen), replete with its own mayor, municipal council, and military garrison takes the issue a step beyond diplomatic quarrels with other claimants, in this case the Philippines and Vietnam. China appears to also view its newly anointed Sansha as a sort of administrative and monitoring hub for the wider South China Sea area.

Beijing’s move follows an episode in June where Vietnam passed maritime legislation asserting its claims to islands in the Paracel and Spratly chains. Not coincidentally, Beijing’s moves also come on the heels of a leaders meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) which failed to agree on a statement to issue in regard to the disputed islets and reefs in the Paracel and Spratly island archipelagos which contain rich fishing grounds as well as oil and deposits.

This caused Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to launch a troubleshooting shuttle in the region to Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia to restore a common Asean position on the South China Sea, including support for the 2002 Declaration of Conduct. While Asean, with US support, has sought to resolve the disputes in multilateral talks, China has insisted on addressing each claimant bilaterally, where it has greater leverage.

Beijing has long asserted that all within what are known as the “nine dash lines”, some 80% of the South China Sea, is sovereign Chinese territory. This claim contradicts the Law of the Sea Treaty, which limits economic zones to within 338km of a nation’s continental shelf. Beijing argues that these claims were Chinese territory prior to the treaty, and are somehow consistent with it. However, China did not control Woody island (which it calls Yongxing Dao) until 1974 when it engaged in a naval clash with Saigon that left 71 Vietnamese dead.

In 2010, China suggested that these disputed South China Sea territories were part of its “core interests” in the same non-negotiable sovereign territory category as Taiwan and Tibet. Beijing subsequently appeared to scale back that view after a strong reaction by Asean and the United States. However, China’s new measures do not inspire confidence that it has a more restrained definition of core interests.

Chinese Monroe Doctrine?

Chinese actions may be designed to send multiple messages beyond which claimant controls what speck of land. Nationalism is a volatile force in China, and to many Chinese, being “pushed around” by small countries like the Philippines and Vietnam is an insult to the Middle Kingdom. At a time when China’s economic growth faces serious obstacles and political leadership is in the process of transition, popular nationalism may be seen as a welcome diversion.

But there is a larger point as well. Ever since Washington announced its “rebalancing”, with the Pentagon announcing in June that it would station 60% of its navy in the Pacific by 2020, Chinese strategists have been casting about for how to respond. The US takes no position on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea other than a desire to see them resolved peacefully. The principal US national interest is in maintaining unimpeded freedom of navigation.

Could it be that Beijing sees its assertiveness as a low-cost, low-risk way to show Washington a bit of its own version of the Monroe Doctrine? To be sure, China is well aware that its assertiveness is not well received in East Asia, and tends to lead smaller nations to tilt to the US to balance China. But Beijing seems to be calculating that despite the more robust US military posture in the region, China can throw its weight around and the US response will be limited to diplomatic reprimand. Beijing seems to be betting that the US will not intervene militarily if there is a naval skirmish between China and Vietnam or the Philippines in the South China Sea.

It may be a message from Beijing in effect, “this is our neighbourhood, you don’t call the shots”. Perhaps. But where does such logic take China’s role in the emerging international order? It is one thing if in a rules-based world, China seeks a larger role in shaping the rules, commensurate with increased economic and political weight. It is quite another if the message is simply about power. If the latter is the case, China is likely to be more successful in mobilising a broad-based coalition of states seeking to counter-balance it than to obtain its objectives as a singular actor.

Robert A. Manning

The end of ASEAN centrality?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) suffered a major loss of face, at least in the perceptions of some international media and academic experts, owing to its failure to issue its customary joint communique at its last ministerial meeting (ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, or the AMM) in Cambodia held during July 9-13.

The reason, as has been widely reported, was the refusal of Cambodia as the ASEAN chair to incorporate the positions of

Philippines and Vietnam regarding their dispute with China over the South China Sea. As a result, the idea of ASEAN centrality, which assumes that ASEAN, rather than the great powers like China, Japan, the US or India, should be the building bloc and hub of developing a wider Asian or Asia-Pacific regional architecture, is facing a severe test. But there may be some silver linings and useful lessons which, if acted upon, can put ASEAN in a better position to move forward.

Much has been made of the infighting and putdowns inside the AMM deliberations, based on leaked accounts, that led to the impasse in Phnom Penh. Many observers have noted that this was the first time ASEAN had failed to issue a joint communique in its 45 years history.

But ASEAN’s rise to regional and international prominence has never been smooth. The ASEAN process ground to a virtual halt in 1968-1969 over the Philippines’ claim to Sabah. Moreover, the expansion of its membership and functions has its costs and consequences.

ASEAN now not only includes all 10 countries of Southeast Asia, it has taken on the additional role of being in the “driver’s seat” of larger regional bodies like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), bodies that include all the great powers of the world today.

In particular, the crisis brings to the fore one of the concerns that some of us had highlighted about ASEAN’s expansion to include the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) in the 1990s.[1] These included the possibility that the entry of Vietnam would make the South China Sea issue even more of a “frontline” issue for ASEAN, as Hanoi was surely to seek ASEAN’s diplomatic backing over the dispute with Beijing, and that the new members may not always obey the traditional norms of ASEAN like the consensus principle.

The crisis also puts a spotlight on the role of Cambodia in ASEAN, which has been a major part of the ASEAN story.

It is ironic that the ASEAN’s recent discomfiture occurred in Cambodia, and was the result of Cambodia’s own action in blocking the joint declaration. Without ASEAN’s role in seeking a negotiated solution to the decade long Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia that ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, there might not be a sovereign Cambodia to day. Cambodia may still be languishing under foreign occupation (under Vietnam’s occupation) or as an international pariah (under Khmer Rouge rule).

Moreover, this is not the first time that Cambodia’s engagement with ASEAN has been problematic. In July 1997, Hun Sen’s “coup” against co-premier Norodom Ranarridh led ASEAN to postpone Cambodia’s imminent accession to ASEAN.

Hun Sen also alarmed fellow ASEAN members, especially his Thai neighbor, by hosting fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and even appointing him as a personal advisor in November 2009. This went against the established ASEAN principle that granting support to a fugitive from a member state would constitute an act of interference in the internal affairs of that member state.

Will Cambodia go all the way in deferring to China, as American political scientist Donald Emmerson has speculated in an Stanford University article in which he referred to Cambodia’s “spoiler’s role as a proxy for Beijing?” Many hope that Cambodia will put its ASEAN interests first. If Cambodia does pander to China this way, it would incur serious costs. Such an action would severely isolate it from its neighbors. As Norodom Sihanouk, when he was still the king of Cambodia, once told this author, Cambodia does not want to be a supplicant to a great power and that his country would always need to be watchful about China’s intentions because of China’s size and proximity to Cambodia. I have every reason to believe that Cambodia will always seek to retain its autonomy and not be a sidekick to another power.

But it should show more deference to the ASEAN spirit. In justifying its decision to block the communique, Cambodia has since clarified (in a July 26 note) that “The AMM is not a court that could rule against or in favor of anybody, in relation to bilateral disputes.”[2] But the Joint Communique of the 44th AMM hosted by Indonesia did specifically refer to the Thai-Cambodia border dispute (Part IV, Para 103).[3] Also, China is not an ASEAN member. It has never been an official ASEAN policy to specifically exclude discussion or mention of bilateral disputes involving non-ASEAN members or between an ASEAN member and an outside party. And whether the South China Sea dispute is really a purely bilateral dispute can be questioned, and Cambodia’s stance is inconsistent with ASEAN’s own policy of talking to China multilaterally over this issue.

Cambodia can ill afford to weaken ASEAN. Membership in ASEAN has been about the best thing that happened to Cambodia’s national interest and foreign policy (or for that matter to the foreign policy of other CLMV countries). Only through ASEAN that Cambodia can realistically hope to have any real voice and role in international and regional affairs than what it can manage on its own. Cambodia should learn its own lesson from the crisis and not hold the whole organization to its own interpretation of ASEAN’s interests.

What is more significant that other ASEAN members, including original members Singapore and Malaysia, had supported the ministerial statement that Cambodia managed to scuttle. Indeed, a few years ago, some analysts had believed that Malaysia might defect and support China’s claims in the South China Sea in support for concessions from China, including recognition of its own claims in the disputed area. Yet, this time, Malaysia showed little sign of any special understanding with China on the dispute.

Even if ASEAN foreign ministers do not manage to issue the formal communique that was withheld in Phnom Penh, the six-point statement issued by the Cambodian foreign minister will help ASEAN to regain some of its lost image. But it is too much to call this as the end of ASEAN.

There is little question that Hun Sen’s refusal to accommodate Philippines and Vietnam resulted at least partly from Chinese pressure. According to a highly placed source, the Chinese specifically reminded the Cambodians that Sihanouk, as the leader of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK), had accepted the Chinese claims on the South China Sea. The CGDK was the resistance coalition of Cambodian factions had fought the Vietnamese occupiers (and the Hanoi-installed Heng Samarin regime of which Hun Sen was a young member) of Cambodia in exile with Chinese, ASEAN and Western assistance. Even if this is true, one should keep in mind that Sihanouk’s stance was made under duress, when he needed Chinese help to fight the Vietnamese occupation.

In the meantime, the mood on ASEAN has soured in Beijing. Chinese officials, after developing a close and positive relationship with ASEAN for decades, increasingly view it (and regional multilateral cooperation more generally) as a threat, rather than a prop, to its great power ambitions. Yet Beijing needs to remind itself, if one was needed, that its soft power and influence in the region depends on working with and supporting ASEAN, not undermining it. Rising power does not equate to rising influence or respect in the absence of a policy of restraint towards smaller neighbors, something Indonesia has preached and practiced towards its ASEAN neighbors since the fall of Sukarno. Hence, it is appropriate that it was the Indonesian Foreign Minister, who undertook the damage control mission on behalf of ASEAN after the Cambodia setback

The crisis may have some silver linings. It will be a useful wake-up call for ASEAN.

One of the most critical challenges facing ASEAN is the need to strengthen the ASEAN secretariat. Apparently, three officials from the secretariat, including two Cambodians, were sent to Phnom Penh to spend weeks there before the ministerial meeting. But they provided no forewarning of the coming crisis. This suggests either that the secretariat staff lacked the necessary analytic skills, or that valuable information was deliberately withheld for the sake of parochial national interests. It shows that ASEAN as an institution is yet to develop a mindset that rises above national positions and serves the common interest of the organization when the situation demands. It is noteworthy that none other than the current ASEAN Secretary-General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, had provided a detailed account (entitled “ASEAN’s Challenges”) of his secretariat’s shortcomings with recommendations for improving its efficiency. These steps need to be urgently implemented.

Cambodia’s handling of its ASEAN chairmanship in 2012 should be a warning to Myanmar, which assumes the chairmanship in 2014. While not all new members have handled leadership positions badly, and Cambodia itself organized a very successful AMM and ARF meeting in 2003, Myanmar should strive its best to restore and advance ASEAN’s image.

ASEAN also should be careful in being perceived as pursuing an overtly pro-US agenda at the expense of China. America’s role at the most recent ASEAN meetings (especially the ARF) has received less media attention in the region that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s intervention at the 2010 Hanoi ARF meeting where she drew the ire of his Chinese counterpart by drawing attention to the South China Sea conflict. Many Chinese officials believe that America’s “interference” has internationalized the South China Sea conflict and harmed China’s national interests. This perception is of course in correct, but ASEAN, including Indonesian Foreign Minister Nataleawa, should convey to Beijing that ASEAN is acting on its own interests, not America’s no matter how much the two coincide.

Next, ASEAN’s original members have a special responsibility to rise up to the occasion and guide ASEAN at this critical juncture. Indonesia has done that, but Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and Brunei (which joined ASEAN in 1984) also need to enhance their role to prevent future setbacks such as that happened in Phnom Penh.

Some of the recent commentaries on the Cambodia AMM have missed the fact that the Phnom Penh, ASEAN adopted the terms of reference for the ASEAN Institute of Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR). Even more important, just after the Cambodia AMM, Thailand and Cambodia pulled out their troops (to be replaced by their border police pending an International Court of Justice verdict on the dispute next year) from the disputed Preah Vihear temple area, thereby diffusing a major point of intra-ASEAN conflict for the past years.

Finally, the degree of cohesion expected of ASEAN, including by experts who had suddenly taken an interest in the organization because of its growing prominence during the past few years, is unrealistic. It is useful to keep in mind what regional organizations can and cannot do. ASEAN is an intergovernmental organization of sovereign states. Witness the current disarray within MERCOSUR, another prominent subregional group in the world which is often compared with ASEAN, over the suspension of Paraguay (over the legal impeachment of its President) and its induction of Venezuela as a member. And after three years, the European Union the “role model” of regional organizations is still struggling to contain an deteriorating economic crisis with a show of unity and efficiency.

To conclude, the idea of ASEAN centrality is under challenge, but it is too early to pronounce it as dead. Critics are right to question whether ASEAN has the ability to shoulder such a responsibility and ASEAN should draw lessons from the Phnom Penh AMM. But one should not jump to conclusions about ASEAN’s future on the basis of the embarrassment it suffered in Phnom Penh.

Amitav Acharya

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