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Foreign Policy

Regional States Begin Reconciliation in the South China Sea

Sep 05 , 2016
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

Just as China and the Philippines, and by extension ASEAN, are settling in for a quiet confidence building diplomacy, the ostensibly liberal New York Times editorial board wrote, “China’s Defiance in the South China Sea,”  on August 13th 2016. The editorial pokes China for ‘worsening tensions’ and fuels questions like ‘freedom of navigation,’ which is the American signature tune in the region. The editorial makes it all about China and the United States whereas, the South China Sea (SCS) is primarily about China and Southeast Asia.    

While the U.S. amplifies tempers by calling for respect of the given ruling under the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), of which the U.S. itself is not a signatory, none of the predicted responses from the contending parties, China and the Philippines, have come true. On the contrary, both have opted for ‘strategic restraint’ and have chosen the path of dialogue to find common ground over the SCS.

Boycotting the UNCLOS tribunal’s proceedings and rejecting its findings, China wants the SCS maritime boundaries to be resolved through direct talks between China and the parties concerned. The claims in the SCS overlap amongst China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

For now, in pursuit of mutual interest, the parties have agreed to launch an emergency hotline and to adopt a code for unplanned encounters. The ASEAN-China summit next month is expected to formally endorse these documents. Both are aimed at managing risks amongst littoral states. Singapore, as the country coordinator of dialogue with China, deserves kudos for facilitating the agreement. Not even mentioning the ruling in the recent joint statement, the parties tend to tacitly accept that the ruling is a hurdle rather than a unifying factor in their relations. Having jettisoned the ruling so early, the ASEAN will find it hard to lean back on it later.  

By appointing former president Fidel Ramos as a special envoy for China—one of the most respected figures in the country—the Philippines’ new president has demonstrated maturity in dealing with China. And after a meeting between Mr. Ramos and Ms. Fu Ying, Chairperson of the foreign relations committee in the NPP in Hong Kong, both sides are set to begin “a process of formal discussions.”

Scholars have questioned why China claims the areas only through historic basis, when much of their ownership is implied in 1887 Sino-Franco Convention concerning the Delimitation of the Border Between China and Tonkin; the 1898 Treaty of Paris; the 1900 Treaty of Washington and the 1930 Convention between the United States and Great Britain. Spratly and Parcel Islands were returned to China following the 1952 San Francisco Treaty with Japan.

The trouble is that international order is changing. As the Chinese economy has grown exponentially since the 70’s, so have its interests, ambitions and power. In addition to a secure supply of resources, China wants atonement for the ‘century of humiliation’ suffered at the hands of the west. These assertions are seen as a challenge to the United States—the main status quo power.

The big question: Is China prepared to live by a set of rules that are made by the victors of WWII?

The debate for China is not about ‘freedom of navigation,’ which China has guaranteed; it is about thwarting its rise.  China is convinced that the U.S.-led maritime coalition of extra-regional players like Japan, India and Australia are a direct threat to its sovereignty along with the ‘Pivot to Asia’ and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. America’s freedom of navigation operations in the areas claimed by China is provocative. In this backdrop, if the U.S. wants China to change, it must examine its own attitudes and actions towards China.

In nearly 50 years of existence, ASEAN has agreed on countless matters, all of which are common interest to its members. However, in the case of the SCS where China’s differences are with just four of ASEAN’s ten states, many argue that this is not an ASEAN issue. Should such an occasion arise, there is no clause that makes it mandatory for the rest of the members to side with the nation that has differences with an outside power. ASEAN should celebrate its achievements and build on common aspirations rather than falling out on issues that fuel discord. China, bashing as a benchmark of ASEAN’s unity, goes against its own interests.

When others determine time in decades or centuries, the Chinese determine it in millennia. In the Chinese psyche there is a belief that the rise of China will resolve contested territorial claims in the SCS and East China Sea in its favor. With time on its side, China is in no hurry.

China and ASEAN share compulsions of geography. As the largest trading nation poised to become the world’s biggest economy in real terms, there is no good reason why China will impede commercial navigation in the SCS. China’s interests lie in a friendly neighborhood – interests that run contrary to extra-regional powers. Their involvement will result in perpetual tension to ASEAN’s peril. On the other hand, ASEAN’s win, is China’s win.

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