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Foreign Policy

Cooler Heads Must Prevail in South China Sea Disputes

Jun 17, 2016
  • Yi Fan

    a Beijing-based political commentator

On Tuesday, senior ASEAN diplomats gathered in Yunnan for a special foreign ministers’ meeting with their Chinese counterparts. The idea came from ASEAN countries, the turnout was impressive, and the retreat was deemed “timely and important”. Amidst media speculation that the discussion pitted ASEAN against China, it will be useful to take a step back and examine the larger picture.

First, the meeting demonstrated a shared desire by China and ASEAN countries to advance cooperation and manage differences. No single issue should blind people to the enormous progress that has been made in China-ASEAN relations. China has shown consistent support for a stronger and more prosperous ASEAN and advocated for ASEAN centrality in regional cooperation. ASEAN countries, for their part, welcome China’s land and maritime Silk Road initiative and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking in Yunnan, reminded the world of the long-standing ties that bind China and ASEAN countries. “We are connected by common mountains and rivers,” he said, “and must remain eternal friends and partners.” This sentiment was echoed by his ASEAN colleagues.

As for the so-called bone of contention, the South China Sea issue, it is time to see it for what it is: limited territorial and maritime disputes between China and a small handful of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, rather than a dispute between China and ASEAN per se or any grandiose geo-strategic contest that certain non-littoral countries have tried to project. At the meeting, both sides reaffirmed their resolve not to let the dispute define ASEAN-China relations. The messages it sent that China and ASEAN will carefully manage their differences and work together to maintain peace and stability should be a welcome one, especially when the two sides are poised to celebrate a quarter century of ASEAN-China dialogue relations later this year. Those people intent on constructing a narrative of ASEAN versus China must be disappointed, though they tried, pathetically, to concoct a media story of a China-ASEAN split based on a non-existent ASEAN joint statement.

Second, it is worthwhile to make continuous efforts to build trust between China and ASEAN countries, which is essential for resolving difficult problems. Misled by the heated rhetoric making headlines, it is easy to fall into the trap of polemics. However, finger-pointing has never settled any territorial or maritime disputes. To chart a path forward, it will be useful to analyze the psychology of both ASEAN countries and China.

ASEAN members, collectively and individually, know that their long-term well-being and prosperity lies with China. When it comes to the South China Sea disputes, they consider the claimants as one of their own whereas China is an outsider. The non-claimants do not want to choose sides. But if push comes to shove, they will probably side with family for the sake of ASEAN unity rather than a neighbor, albeit a close one.

As for the claimants, some are wary about US involvement and prefer to address their differences with China through “quiet” bilateral discussions, but others are eager to enlist the United States as a hedge against China, a rising power whose strategic intentions, they believe, are not entirely clear. This creates a peculiar situation where, despite generally broad and deep bilateral ties between China and individual southeast Asian nations, ASEAN-China meetings have sometimes been “hijacked” by a few vocal claimants, to the regret of other ASEAN members as well as China.

China, on the other hand, feels wronged and finds itself the target of unfair criticism. China has seen 42 of its Nansha islands and reefs occupied by others, but has been labeled a “bully”. Instead of staking out new claims, China has appealed to the claimants to “shelve disputes and engage in joint development” of resources, but to no avail. China has only recently conducted dredging and construction activities on its own islands and reefs, but has been described as “assertive” even though others have been at it for decades.

In Beijing’s view, the timing of the arbitration brought by the Philippines, a US ally, was suspicious. Under President Aquino, Manila allowed itself to be a pawn in Washington’s “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific. While the arbitration lacks legitimacy, it has distracted China and put it on the defense, a situation that some people are only too pleased to see. China has concluded that it is not up against the Philippines or ASEAN, but against hawkish voices in the United States and elsewhere, which seize the disputes as a tool to slow China’s rise.

What is missing here is a sense of history. While ASEAN countries are understandably uneasy about China’s rapid rise, they should have taken heart from the celebrated story of Zheng He (1371-1433), who acted more like a diplomat than an admiral. China, on the other hand, needs to better understand the feeling of smaller nations and their instinct to gather strength from unity. ASEAN, after all, was created at the height of the Cold War. Although China-ASEAN relations have come a long way since then, trust is not built in a day.

Third, outside powers, particularly the United States, should not fan the flames or muddy the waters (excuse the mixed metaphor). Washington styles itself as a champion of the “rules-based regional order,” frequently cites the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and suggests that China’s “nine-dash line” is inconsistent with UNCLOS.

This argument is flawed and hypocritical. The truth is, UNCLOS does not oppose historical rights. The United States has not ratified UNCLOS and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Its Freedom of Navigation (FON) program, which started in 1983, were meant as a direct challenge to the one-year-old UNCLOS. Of the four permanent members of the UN Security Council that have already joined UNCLOS, all – not just China – have deposited declarations which rule out compulsory procedures.

As Washington leads the charge for the early conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea (COC), it turns a blind eye to the fact that even ASEAN countries themselves are divided over what the COC should look like and that it took six years to negotiate the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Indeed, as things stand, the DOC, which calls for self-restraint and direct negotiation between claimants, is the staple of the “rules-based regional order.” Yet even senior ASEAN diplomats have admitted that its implementation has been far from satisfactory.

So where does this leave us? For China, it must remain engaged with ASEAN and provide strategic reassurances about its peaceful intentions. For ASEAN countries, it would better serve their interests to answer the call of President Xi Jinping and become the mutual friend of China and the United States. Together, China and ASEAN countries would do well to rebuild trust, implement the DOC fully and effectively, and speed up the COC consultations. For the United States, it must keep its commitment of not taking position on territorial claims and respect the efforts of the region to maintain peace and stability.

The stakes are high: Great-power rivalry in the South China Sea will divide and marginalize ASEAN. A military buildup will destabilize the region. Asia’s role as a key engine of global growth will be thrown into doubt. While irresponsible forces may spoil for a fight in the South China Sea, cooler heads must prevail.

Copyright: Global Times

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