Beijing Denies Creating ASEAN Rifts over South China Sea

Posted on August 15, 2012


China is denying that it is attempting to create discord within the ASEAN regional bloc in an attempt to exert more influence in disputed areas of the energy-rich South China Sea.

Some observers says Beijing does not want the 10-member Southeast Asian grouping to unify on the matter because China would rather deal with its much weaker rival claimants separately.

But an article in China’s official Xinhua news agency dismissed the allegations, calling them Western attempts to stoke “mistrust and enmity between China and its close neighbors.”

The accusations intensified last month when ASEAN failed to move ahead on the South China Sea issue at a regional summit in Cambodia. The group failed to produce a joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history, an impasse that was widely attributed to Chinese political pressure.

But Xinhua on Monday shot back, suggesting such a split is the result of the “meddling of some Western countries” that are looking for a divided Asia, in an apparent reference to the Obama administration’s recent “pivot” towards the region.

Carlyle Thayer, a specialist on ASEAN affairs at the University of New South Wales, says it would be a mistake to argue that long-standing territorial disputes between China and its five rival claimants are the result of recent U.S. policy decisions.

“I think to put all the blame, or to even try to elevate the importance of the U.S. as the instigator has gotten the facts wrong,” says Thayer. “These disputes existed long before the so-called pivot was announced.”

Thayer acknowledges that the Philippines and Vietnam, the two ASEAN members most outspoken against China’s maritime claims, have become emboldened following the U.S. rebalancing. But he says U.S. officials have recently made comments encouraging restraint.

The Xinhua commentary comes as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi wrapped up his five-day tour of Southeast Asia, where he said China was willing to work with regional leaders on a long-delayed code of conduct to reduce tensions in the South China Sea.

Thayer says Yang’s trip is likely a bid by Beijing to limit the fall-out from the failure of last month’s ASEAN summit, which some say highlighted China’s heavy-handed efforts to create a more compliant ASEAN.

“I think the foreign minister’s visit was a fence-mending (trip) designed to give reassurance that at least cooperative activities which have been in abeyance on the South China Sea are about to start and that the long-protracted negotiations on a code of conduct will be put back on track,” says Thayer.

Following a meeting with Yang, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called on ASEAN countries to settle their disputes with one another before dealing with China, raising the prospect of whether the trip was a success for Beijing.

China has become increasingly assertive in claiming nearly all of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, which is thought to hold vast energy deposits and is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the region.


America’s clumsy South China Sea statement

The rhetoric is growing hotter among China, most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, and the United States. This month, the State Department took the unusual step of issuing a press statement that singled out Chinese behavior for criticism in creating a new administrative district covering most of the disputed islets in the South China Sea. Beijing’s media outlets have been responding with invective that’s stoking already high emotions among the Chinese public. The issue of managing tensions and territorial claims that are inherently difficult to resolve has become more difficult, not less.

It was not apparently intended in Washington for the situation to deteriorate in this fashion. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against unilateral actions in the South China Sea and for the development of an effective code of conduct to govern rivals’ activities in the area. This was widely understood to be a needed shove in China’s direction to quit stalling on agreeing to the code of conduct and to restrain the aggressive actions of its fishermen and oil drillers. It was accompanied by American professions of disinterest in the specific territorial disputes, but insistence on freedom of navigation in the heavily trafficked waters and peaceful resolution of the disputes under international law.

China didn’t like the American push then, at a time when Chinese diplomacy was scoring costly “own goals” in the East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula as well. But by the end of 2010, China was trying harder to get along with its neighbors and Clinton’s warning seemed to have done well. More recently, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon made a trip to Beijing (and Tokyo) that was well received by Beijing’s highest leaders and seemed to put discussion of thorny issues on a high-policy plane. Coming right after his visit, the State Department statement must have arrived as a shock in Beijing.

The South China Sea presents complicated issues of evolving international law, historic but ill-defined claims, a rush to grab declining fish stocks, and competition to tap oil and gas reserves. Beijing’s much discussed “nine-dashed line,” which purports to give China a claim on about 80 percent of the South China Sea and its territories, used to be an eleven-dashed line. Two dashes separating Chinese and Vietnamese claims were resolved through bilateral negotiations years ago. This suggests that the remaining nine dashes are equally negotiable. But China rigidly refuses to clarify the basis for its claims, whether they are based on the accepted international law of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or the less widely accepted historical assertions. Beijing’s refusal to choose suggests it wants to maximize its legal and political leverage, even as the growth of its military and maritime assets gains physical leverage over its weaker neighbors.

Beijing isn’t alone. Hanoi has leased oil exploration blocks in contested waters, and Manila is trying the same. Their colonial occupations left a discontinuous record of historic claims, inclining them to rely more on UNCLOS to manage disputed resources. They eagerly encourage American weight thrown onto their side of the competition with China for free.

This is where the United States needs to move with caution and only after thinking many steps ahead. The overriding strategic objective of the United States in Asia is to manage China’s rise – which appears inevitable – in ways that don’t diminish vital American interests in the region. Navigating the transition period peacefully requires strength and consistency as well as the recognition of changing realities. Severe tests of the Sino-American relationship are to be expected as the United States works to persuade China to accept the existing international rules and principles that have brought prolonged peace, stability, and prosperity to the participants, especially China.

China’s immediate neighbors are by definition weaker than the much larger People’s Republic. Beijing’s temptation to exploit that differential in power needs to be resisted with policies that reward positive behavior and raise the cost of negative behavior.

It was likely such a calculus that led to the State Department recent warning to Beijing. Many in Washington resented China’s strong-arm tactics at the recent ASEAN Regional Forum meeting that prevented the issuance of a communiqué from the annual gathering for the first time in 45 years, explicitly due to disputes about the South China Sea. Moreover, China has increased its naval deployments and added to its various civilian fleets operating in the sea. China’sannouncement of the creation of Sansha municipality and its sister military garrison in the disputed area seemed to push Washington’s patience past its limits. One can imagine U.S. officials arguing that aggressive People’s Liberation Army officers and other Chinese nationalists need to be taught that their policies are counterproductive.

The test for such an initiative by the United States is whether it’s effective in reaching its main strategic goal. Judging from the outrage coming from China at being singled out, after Vietnam and the Philippines had taken steps without being criticized to secure resources in the contested sea before China’s own actions, the U.S. statement seems to be backfiring.

Just weeks before the recent upswing in tensions, the Obama administration had successfully hosted a visit by Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino IIIthat Manila had hoped would bring Washington more closely in line behind Philippine claims. Obama gently let Aquino know that Washington’s support for the alliance is strong and growing, but that South China Sea claims are for Manila to handle alone or together with the other claimants. The United States will provide support for principled negotiations and a peaceful resolution, but not specific outcomes.

Now, by singling Beijing out for criticism, but not the others, Chinese observers believe the United States has taken sides against China. This has undermined the U.S. assertions of a principled approach based on international law by appearing not to be impartial.

U.S. direct interests in the South China Sea aren’t unlimited. The United States has no territorial claims on the minuscule land features there. American firms and citizens are not now at risk. Freedom of navigation is paramount, and China has a minority view under UNCLOS of what constitutes legitimate activity by naval vessels in its exclusive economic zones, which it claims for most of the South China Sea. There is a constant risk of American intelligence collection activity crashing into China’s insistence on the right to deny such activity. So far, this potential source of friction is being managed through political leadership by both sides, in the interest of preventing serious incidents and a deterioration of the overall U.S.-China relationship.

In view of the potential disruptive effects brought about by China’s rise and its neighbors’ responses, the United States has a further interest in a peaceful settlement. Moreover, reinforcement of the rule of international law is in America’s interest in reducing the cost of maintaining stability and managing change going forward.

Today, the South China Sea isn’t at the “Sudetenland” moment of the 21stcentury, which calls for standing up to aggression and the rejection of appeasement. China hasn’t militarized its foreign policy and doesn’t appear equipped to do so for a long time. Its neighbors are not supine, and they show on occasion, when needed, that they are able to coalesce against Chinese actions that they judge as going too far. At the same time, China and those neighbors have more going constructively in trade, investment, and other relations with each other than is at risk in this dispute.

This suggests the makings of a manageable situation, even if it remains impossible to resolve for years to come. Different Asian societies are quite accustomed to living with unresolved disputes, often for centuries.

In light of this reality, the United States would do well to adhere to principled positions it has already articulated, and stand for a process that’s fair to all disputants and those who will be affected at the margins. To do that, Washington will need to protect its position of impartiality and avoid repetition of the misconceived State Department press statement.

Douglas Paal

US warns of divisive diplomacy in South China Sea

WASHINGTON — China should not use bilateral talks to attempt to “divide and conquer” nations with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, the United States said Tuesday.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s comments follow a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to two of those states, Malaysia and Brunei.

Nuland would not say whether the U.S. suspects Beijing’s intentions in those talks. A meeting last month of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, ended in acrimony over the South China Sea, as host Cambodia, a close China ally, refused to sign off on language sought by the Philippines and Vietnam mentioning their individual disputes with China.

“What we’re most concerned about at the moment is that tensions are going up among the stakeholders so we want to see a commitment to a deal that meets the needs of all,” Nuland told a news conference in Washington.

The U.S. and China are increasingly at odds on the issue. Earlier this month, the U.S. criticized China’s establishment of a municipality and military garrison on a remote island in the South China Sea as risking an escalation in tensions.

China has pushed back, and on Monday, state-run news agency Xinhua published a commentary criticizing Western nations of “betting on a divided Asia” because of the region’s economic vitality while their own economies are waning.

Nuland said the U.S. is urging ASEAN and China to work on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, which has some of the world’s busiest sea lanes and are believed to have vast energy deposits.

She said bilateral diplomacy supporting a multilateral deal is fine, “but an effort to divide and conquer and end up with a competitive situation among the different claimants is not going to get where we need to go.”

China has long said it wants to handle disputes over its claims bilaterally, rather than in multilaterally, although during a stop in Indonesia before visiting Malaysia and Brunei, foreign minister Yang said China was also willing “on the basis of consensus” to work toward the eventual adoption of a code of conduct.

The U.S. says it does not take a position on the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, but as a Pacific power has a national interest in the maintenance of peace and security there.

Matthew Pennington

Sansha (Chinese: 三沙) is a prefecture-level city under Hainan province of the People’s Republic of China. It was created on 24 July 2012[2] to administer (actually or nominally) several island groups and undersea atolls in the South China Sea, comprising the Spratly and Paracel Islands as well as the Macclesfield Bank.[3]The entire territory of the city is disputed, and China’s de facto control over this area varies.
The establishment of Sansha is simply an upgrade of the administrative status of these island groups from the previous county-level Administrative Office,[3] and construction of a “city” is not actually underway. A new garrison was also established.[4][5] The US State Department called the change in the administrative status of the territory “unilateral”, and the move has received criticism from two nations engaged in the South China Sea dispute, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The centre of government for Sansha is located on Yongxing (Woody) Island in the Paracels,[6] on which some 600 Chinese civilians currently live.[5] Woody Island is the largest of the islands in the Paracel and Spratly groups with an area of about 5 square miles (13 km2).[7] Nationally, Sansha is the smallest prefecture-level city by both population and land area but the largest by water area[1] and the southernmost. Source: Wikipedia