Surin Pitsuwan, the outgoing secretary-general of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, told the Financial Times that Asia was entering its “most contentious” period in recent years as a rising China stakes out its claim to almost the entire South China Sea, clashing with the Philippines, Vietnam and others.
“We have to be mindful of the fact that the South China Sea could evolve into another Palestine,” if countries do not try harder to defuse rather than inflame tensions, he said.
As it has grown economically and militarily more powerful, Beijing has become more assertive about its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which encompasses vast oil and gas reserves, large fish stocks and key global trade routes.
After naval clashes with Vietnam and the Philippines – which claim parts of the South China Sea alongside Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan – China has further angered its neighbours by printing a map of its extensive maritime claim, known as the “nine-dotted line” in new passports.
Vietnam has hit back by marking the passports of visiting Chinese as “invalid” and issuing separate visa forms rather than appearing to recognise the Chinese claim by stamping passports.
The US has responded to a resurgent Beijing by refocusing its foreign policy on Asia and building closer strategic and military ties with old foes such as Myanmar and Vietnam, which also fear the consequences of potential Chinese hegemony in the region.
Squeezed between these two great powers, southeast Asian nations will come under growing pressure to take sides unless they can stay united, said Mr Pitsuwan, a Thai diplomat who will step down next month after five years as the head of Asean.
He argued that the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea was the result of “the internal dynamics of China”, with Beijing focused on upholding its sovereignty and territory because of the recent leadership change, growing prosperity and a sense that the state-building process was still under way.
Asean, which is the only high-level forum for security issues in Asia, has fallen into disarray this year as Cambodia, a close Beijing ally and the chairman of the organisation, has undermined efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to form a consensus about how to respond to China’s assertive stance.
“Cambodia has to balance itself within an increasingly tense power play,” said Mr Pitsuwan. “I think Cambodia did what it had to do – you have to look at it from their perspective.”
He added that the best hope for avoiding conflict was for Asean and China to agree on a binding code of conduct that would discourage nations from trying to seize islands, oilfields and fishing grounds in order to back up their territorial claims.
But this would be challenging given that Asia’s political institutions and dispute-resolution mechanisms were still very under-developed relative to the growing region’s economic might.
China’s Nine-dashed line Problematic Passport
China’s intention to print new passports depicting its ownership of disputed maritime territories in the South China Sea has riled its neighbors.
If China was looking for a reaction, they have most certainly received one. After printing new passports containing a map of the disputed South China Sea territories as Chinese possessions, officials in Vietnam and the Philippines have wasted little time in protesting the move.
However, Beijing’s move has not only offended neighboring Southeast Asian nations, but India and Taiwan as well. In addition to the nine-dash line claims, China’s new map also contains the Arunachal Pradesh state and the Aksai Chin region disputed with India, and all of Taiwan.
In light of this development, I wondered what would happen if my neighbor had come to my house with a piece of paper that said they now owned a portion of my lawn. I would, of course, laugh at their rather humorous attempt at annexation and turn them away; and if they should begin installing a rose garden and lawn gnomes… Well, I might keep the garden but the gnomes would have to go.
It is hard not to a laugh at what, on the surface, appears to be a non-issue. If China wants to print a map of territories it doesn’t legally own, why should anyone complain? After all, just because China has a picture of the disputed territories does not mean it owns them. Imagine if I took a photo of someone’s Porsche or Lamborghini and then approached the owner, saying, “I have a picture of this very car, therefore it is now mine.” The owner would simply roll his or her eyes and then promptly tell me to get lost.
Except that a passport is not a simple photograph, and the disputed islands in question are not sports cars. In the scenario of the Porsche/Lamborghini, there exists an authoritative body to determine ownership (besides the owner holding the car title). Within countries, disputes can sometimes be settled informally in person, sometimes with a police officer presiding over the dispute. However, most often it is the court system that will settle serious matters. Particularly nasty custody battles over a child are handled by courts, for example.
In the matter of disputed territories, however, no such authoritative body exists.
Acquiescence from others
The United Nations does not have the ability to force China to stop. For countries like Sweden or Switzerland or Mexico, with no particular stake in the South China Sea disputes, stamping the new Chinese passport will change nothing. For claimant states in the disputes, however, to stamp the passport is to accept Chinese ownership of the territories.
Yet, as Vietnam and the Philippines are acutely aware, should third party nations like Sweden, Switzerland or Mexico acknowledge or ignore the new changes with China’s passport, and should they and other nations proceed to stamp the passport, it would over time also mean acceptance of China’s territorial claims. To do nothing would have the same effect as agreeing.
For India, the passport map has threatened relations between New Delhi and Beijing. Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin were scenes of the Sino-Indian War in 1962, which, although they saw a Chinese victory, resulted in some measure of peace between China and India after the dust settled. By issuing the new passport map, what has China accomplished but reigniting old disputes with India?
For Southeast Asian nations, the situation is dire. They cannot prevent China from printing their passports or prevent foreign customs agents from stamping them and they do not possess the same clout as India. For Vietnam, the Philippines, and other claimant states, simply raising one’s voice will not suffice.
Seeking a solution
What, then, is there for an aggrieved country to do? Looking to the International Court of Justice would be a waste of time, for China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, would simply veto any attempt to enforce an unfavorable ruling. Without a supreme authoritative body to render and enforce judgment, the plaintiff—in this case, the claimant states—will have little choice but to resolve this matter on their own.
Knowing this, how can claimant states respond? A very literal shot across the bow would attract Beijing’s attention; however, a shooting war should be at the bottom of a very long list of last resort options. Although both Vietnam and the Philippines have come to blows with China in the past, neither they nor China at present have any desire to engage in a military conflict. Although a direct engagement would favor China, Beijing knows that such a scenario would serve to invite immediate American intervention.
Could claimant states refuse entry to Chinese citizens? Sure, leaders in Vietnam, the Philippines, and other claimant states can turn away Chinese citizens holding the new passport; however, to do so would be at great financial cost. The loss of tourists, workers, and businesses would be felt almost immediately. More importantly, for claimant states to turn away the new passports will do nothing to address other countries stamping the passport.
So, what then? When the threat of war is removed from the table and diplomacy runs its course, what else can they do? Well—and perhaps such a thought is now being entertained by officials from claimant states—why not print new passports with claims to the disputed territories? If it is possible for China to make such a claim using such a tactic, is it not possible for others to do the same? One can imagine a Vietnamese or Filipino public servant saying, “Why don’t we just print new passports saying we own the area, too?”
If Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other claimant states were to begin printing passports with the same claims to the same disputed territories, and if these passports are stamped as their holders travel the world, it would render China’s claim moot. China and the claimant states will have found themselves returned to square one, all declaring ownership over the same area. After all, whose claim is more legitimate if they all declare the same thing, and if their claims, through the actions (or inaction) of the international community, are equally accepted?
For its part, India has done just that by issuing new visas depicting the Arunachal Pradesh state and the Aksai Chin region as belonging to it. Although Beijing has not yet responded to New Delhi’s counter, what is clear is that India has refused to be bullied. Whether the Southeast Asian nations involved in the maritime disputes with China can or will follow suit remains to be seen.
A non-conditional and permanent resolution
Of course, none of this needs to happen. It is quite possible that someone high up in the Chinese leadership decides to backtrack from the new passport. Regardless of the outcome, however, this episode–merely one in a long list of many—has highlighted and reinforced the need to resolve the disputes.
Unfortunately, infighting, indecisiveness, and inaction have so far plagued the South China Sea disputes and prevented serious inroads towards a peaceful resolution. China is comfortable playing games and planning for the road ahead. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and other claimant states have continued to bluster, which has had the effect of accomplishing little. China is comfortable in its place. They possess the ways and means to state their case. The claimant states do not.
As long as the claimant states continue to react to China, the South China Sea disputes will simply escalate. Today the disagreement is over passports. Tomorrow the disagreement may be over something less humorous. It is easy to laugh over a dispute over some picture in a passport, but tomorrow it may very well be military installations on an island. And then what happens next?
It is time for China and claimant states to put an end to these games. A conditional resolution is not a permanent resolution. The notion of losing face is, to be blunt, archaic and useless in this ever volatile situation. Wars have been fought for less, and wars have already been fought over some of the disputed territories.
If there is to be a non-conditional, permanent resolution to the maritime disputes in the South China Sea then all parties involved must be willing to deal with the matter directly. To state a claim as China did, and in so childish a manner, only harms its relationship with its neighbors and the international community, and fails to address the core issues of the disputes.
The borders along India, the question of Taiwan, and the South China Sea are not problems that Beijing can determine unilaterally. If China wants its neighbors and the world to respect its rise, it must also respect the concerns of others.