U.S. Warns Against “Divide-and-Conquer” approach
China is lashing out at accusations that it’s blocking the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from settling rival territorial claims in the South China Sea. According to Beijing, ASEAN’s failure to agree on a code of conduct over the maritime dispute was caused by Western “meddling” designed to “smear China’s positive role in maintaining the unity of the regional bloc.”
ASEAN foreign ministers met last month in Phnom Penh, but failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in the group’s 45-year history. There was talk that the conference host, Cambodia, had blocked agreement because China prefers to deal one-on-one with rival claimants Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
Now China’s official Xinhau news agency is rejecting that accusation and denouncing a Reuters news agency analysis that Beijing is “keeping ASEAN splintered” to “suit its strategy on the South China Sea.”
Stoking mistrust and unity?
The Chinese news agency says Western media are “stoking mistrust and enmity between China and its close neighbors” and fail to recognize that China “has a major stake in safeguarding peace and stability in the region.”
Xinhua says what is really blocking ASEAN unity is “the meddling of some Western countries that are betting on a divided Asia. They loathe to see Asia’s incredible economic vitality while their economies are waning, as is their influence in the world.”
“To see its neighbors at loggerheads with each other, undermining the political and economic power of the involved countries, would be the last thing that Beijing wants,” Xinhua says.
The United States, for one, sees things differently. Asked if she agrees with China’s portrayal of what happened at the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says, “Absolutely not.”
“Our view of what happened is that the ASEAN countries themselves appreciate what a crucial issue it is for them individually and for them collectively to handle this dispute in the South China Sea in a manner that protects their larger security interests,” Nuland says, “that they came at it from different perspectives, and rather than whitewashing that problem and having a weak communiqué that didn’t say much, they chose to continue to talk about it.”
Xinhua’s denunciation of what it calls outside interference that is “doomed to failure” follows Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi’s trip to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, during which he said ASEAN must not lose sight of its broader goals.
“We believe the peace, stability and development in East Asia is our common aspiration,” Yang says. “In the context of a complicated international situation, we need to maintain regional peace and stability, promote mutual trust, and boost economic growth.”
“I think it is the call and desire of the people of all countries in this region,” he says. “Therefore, I believe leaders across the region will follow the public demands and make their own efforts.”
Yang says ASEAN countries value their friendship with China as the bloc has become Beijing’s third-largest trading partner.
Justin Logan, the director of foreign policy studies at the U.S. Cato Institute, says Chinese contracts remain a lucrative incentive for ASEAN members, especially those without claims to the South China Sea.
“I think the chances for a code of conduct that meant something, at the outset, were low,” Logan says. “I think that what this might do is create a clearer distinction between ASEAN countries and their position on China.”
Divide and conquer
Nuland says dividing ASEAN is not the solution.
“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,” Nuland says. “If bilateral diplomacy can be supportive of an ultimate, multilateral framework, then that will be fine; but we don’t think that cutting deals with these countries individually is going to work, let alone be the expedient way or the best way under international law to get this done.”
But Xinhua says to accuse China of splitting countries over the South China Sea is “blatantly ignoring ASEAN’s commitment to cooperation. It also is seriously underestimating ASEAN members’ firm will to bar any foreign interference that would hamper peace and prosperity in one of the world’s most dynamic regions.”
China has become increasingly assertive in claiming nearly all of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and which is believed to hold vast energy deposits.
Xinhua says the South China Sea “which lies almost at the center of the regional map, should become a spot that ties the region together, not one that pulls it apart.”
“Any outside attempt to take advantage of minor differences of interests between each country would prove fruitless and could only draw derision from” ASEAN, it says.
During talks in Jakarta, Foreign Minister Yang meet with his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, who has emerged as a leading mediator over the South China Sea.
Natalegawa told reporters that “the issue was discussed principally in a private setting and so I have no wish, and no right, in a way, to provide the detail of my discussion. But what I can assure colleagues is that diplomacy is very much on track.”
China’s Vows To Reach “Consensus” on South China Sea
During his trip to Southeast Asia this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi vowed to work with ASEAN to reach consensus on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, according to reports by the Asia News Network. Yang visited Indonesia, which has been trying to rally ASEAN unity on the South China Sea, as well as Malaysia and Brunei, two of the nations that have claims to the South China Sea —but ones that have been far more reticent to cross China than Vietnam or the Philippines have been.
The Chinese media reported that Yang’s promise would cool tensions in the region, and would mollify Southeast Asian nations, and indeed Yang received some rhetorical support from leaders in Malaysia and Brunei. But since both of those nations have in the past been far more willing to bend to China’s demands, their stance shows little about whether the issue is really any closer to being resolved.
The Philippines and Vietnam, which have hardly cooled down since the failed ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, even though ASEAN eventually produced a watered-down joint statement, are unlikely to see Yang’s visit as anything more than a weak make-nice try, or a Chinese effort to deepen splits within ASEAN over the Sea. And in Indonesia, the foreign ministry offered the usual bromides about Southeast Asia and China needing to work together closely to solve disputed areas in the Sea, but offered little substantive support for China’s positions. The Indonesian foreign ministry has made it a priority to maintain ASEAN unity on the Sea, partly through skillful Indonesian shuttle diplomacy; though Indonesia does not have direct claims on the Sea, given its ambitions of regional power, and its growing frustration with ASEAN, it has far less interest than Malaysia in simply accepting China’s demands.
Overall, then, Yang’s trip showed little new. Perhaps cooler heads are going to prevail, on both sides, but there’s no evidence of that yet.