Tensions between China and some Southeast Asian states over territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) appear to have eased with the agreement reached in Bali on July 20 between China’s Foreign Minister and his ASEAN counterparts. Many observers see the agreement as direct consequence of the US’s strong diplomatic and quasi-military efforts that implicitly took sides with Vietnam and the Philippines to deter China’s otherwise more hardline actions—another successful example of the US role as an “off-shore balancer.” However, such engagment should not be regarded as a model for the US’s long-term strategy in the region, because it is rooted in four long-held misperceptions of China’s objectives and approaches concerning the SCS disputes.
The first misperception is that China alone should be held responsible for recent tensions on the SCS for its violation of the DOC. Yes, Beijing has sent more patrol boats and fighter jets to waters around disputed islands or reefs in recent years, but only because some Southeast Asian states have been unilaterally accelerating their surveying and exploitation of natural resources in disputed waters and expanding military and civilian facilities on disputed islands currently under their occupation—both violate the guiding spirit of the DOC. Thus the image of a rising Titan bullying its small neighbors comes more from a natural sympathy for the weaker parties than more balanced appreciation of the real situation.
The second misperception is that China claims most of the SCS as its internal waters. It is true that Beijing needs to provide a detailed official explanation for the Nine-dashed Line—its historical and legal standing as well as specific territorial boundaries and rights. Yet it has never declared the vast SCS waters to be its territorial sea. Beijing’s official position has remained that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the SCS islands (within the Nine-dashed Line) and their surrounding waters,” and it has often reiterated—especially over the past decade—the importance of maintaining secure and free navigation in the SCS. For example, a whole chapter (Part Three) in the DOC was written to specify rights and rules concerning straits used for international navigation, mainly in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) signed in 1982.
Some may argue that China keeps infringing on other states’ free navigation rights, as examplified by its consistent efforts to deny access of the US’s military surveillance ships into its claimed Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). It is worth noting, however, that while Washington maintains that UNCLOS did not clearly define and therefore did not change the rights of military vessels to conduct non-threatening activities in others’ EEZs, “peaceful uses” has been acknowledged as an overarching principle for all ocean activities under the treaty that the US has yet to ratify. Therefore, many Chinese scholars argue that the US should respect this principle and stop conducting military-related activities in others’ EEZs.
The third misperception is that China has pursued a “divide and defeat” strategy towards claimant ASEAN states and thus resisted a multilateral approach. Beijing did oppose multilateral negotiation or even discussion of the SCS disputes in such forums as the East Asian Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), but it did so in large part because the disputes are only between China and four ASEAN states, the latter also having many overlapping claims of their own. Given the fact that there are already many bilateral channels to address territorial disputes and that most non-claimant ASEAN states feel reluctant to choose sides, a multilateral approach towards the final solution of SCS disputes would very likely impair the rapidly developing China-ASEAN strategic partnership and pose new challenges to ASEAN unity.
The final misperception is that China aims to dominate the SCS as a key step to monopolize Southeast Asia, a “Monroe Doctrine for maritime Asia” as some put it. China’s rapid military buildup in recent years further fuels such concerns. Yet in overstating China’s ambition in the SCS, one might overlook crucial facts regarding Beijing’s long-term goals and concerns.
As demonstrated in the Whitebook on Peaceful Development of China published by the State Council Information Office on September 6, the trajectory of China’s rising power has been—and will remain in the decades to come—by and large internally focused, i.e., preoccupied with maintaining domestic stability and economic growth as well as promoting an equitable distribution of wealth among all its people. Despite its hunger for natural resources, seeking to dominate Southeast Asia while risking acute conflicts with other major powers simply goes against China’s domestic blueprint.
With regard to the often ambiguous and even discordant messages sent by China in SCS disputes over the past years, the above-mentioned four misperceptions are not totally groundless. If they continue to dominate American political thinking, then the US is very likely to carry on with its current power-balancing strategy in the SCS. However, such a strategy is intrinsically problematic, as its two major objectives—to forestall potential military clashes and balance China’s rising power—may well conflict with each other. By even seeming to align with claimant ASEAN states to balance China, the US is actually encouraging them to take adventurous actions which, in turn, will not only increase the possibility of acute conflicts on the SCS but also push China towards stronger determination to override the US in the region.
A power-balancing strategy may seem to be the easiest option for the US, and one which may appear to be working now. But in the long run, the US can better protect its interests by joining hands with China to improve mutual strategic trust and help construct a stable cooperation framework in the region. China, likewise, should not lose sight of its own limits and the mixed historical memories of its neighbors. From this positive perspective the SCS disputes provide a new opportunity to test the understanding, wisdom and patience of all relevant parties.
Zhexin Zhang is research fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) and currently a visiting fellow at Henry L. Stimson Center.