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Foreign Policy

Who Makes Rules On the Chessboard of the South China Sea?

Sep 01 , 2014

On the chessboard of the South China Sea, spectators have turned into players and the game is expanding. Whose rules should be followed? This represents a new focus and direction of the game over the South China Sea in 2014. After the moves, prompts and counter-moves over a half year plus, players gathered at Nay Pyi Taw, capital of Myanmar, in August, to engage in a scrimmage.

Zhai Kun

On August 9, US Secretary of State John Kerry pressed for a freeze on actions in the South China Sea at the ARF Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, an idea that had been brewing for quite some time. However, the proposal was coldly received and even opposed by participating foreign ministers. The American desire to make the rules in the South China Sea was thwarted, as none of the other parties wanted the US to make rules or to press for a Code of Conduct. After the meeting, Kerry flew to Australia and Hawaii to argue his case for a freeze, making an early preparation for the upcoming East Asia Summit in November. Twists and turns of the proposal help one understand who makes rules in the South China Sea.

Firstly, there was the embarrassment of the freeze proposal. The game in August may be summed up as simple one, two and three steps. First was Kerry’s proposal that all claimants to the South China Sea disputes should freeze provocative actions, including land reclamation and construction on disputed islands. Next was Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s “dual-track approach”, with which “China and ASEAN have already found the path for resolving the South China Sea issue, i.e. relevant disputes being addressed by countries directly concerned through friendly consultations and negotiations and in a peaceful way, and peace and stability in the South China Sea being jointly maintained by China and ASEAN countries.” And the third was the Philippines’ three-step plan to suspend activities that aggravate tensions in the short term, conclude a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) in the mid-term and finally settle sovereignty disputes peacefully. After negotiations, ASEAN Foreign Ministers did not mention a “freeze” in their joint declaration. They just noted the three-step proposal and urged that the process of negotiation on COC be sped up. It is fair to say that the US lost the game; ASEAN neither won nor lost; and China had a small victory.

Next, we’ll go into the background of the freeze proposal. Since former Secretary of State Clinton declared the South China Sea as a US national interest in 2010, the US has tried to get involved in the relevant disputes. While the Philippines and Vietnam have attempted to rope the US in, China is firmly opposed to American intervention. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew wrote last March in an article for Forbes: “It is naive to believe that a strong China will accept the conventional definition of what parts of the sea around it are under its jurisdiction. This should come as no surprise, but it has been uncomfortable for some of China’s neighbors and other stakeholders, including the U.S.” A failure to materialize its desire for protracted time inevitably hurts the American reputation and undermines its strategy to rebalance towards the Asia Pacific. On July 11, in a speech at CSIS, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Fuchs summed up three types of international criticisms of US policy: that the alliance is outdated, that the US is an outsider and that American attention has been diverted elsewhere. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel also considered the recent “tough unilateral actions” of China “expansionary” and “inconsistent with international law or standards.” The US found it necessary to make rules for Chinese actions in the South China Sea so that China would not bully smaller and weaker countries without constraint, or establish its sphere of influence. Such is the background of the freeze proposal, the essence of which is to resolve South China Sea disputes under US rules. The failure of the freeze proposal means that the US attempt to restrain and regulate Chinese behavior in the South China Sea has not produced any effect.

The logic of the freeze is that the US sets a trap for China and ASEAN countries. The problem is: why does the US make rules for other countries and why do other countries accept American rules? Critics believe that the US should lead by example rather than imposing rules on others while exempting itself. It is a mainstream opinion among Chinese strategists that the US strategy to rebalance towards the Asia Pacific and its moves to use the South China Sea disputes to play off China’s relations with ASEAN countries are the root causes of disturbances in the region. If the Chinese ask whether the US will first freeze its own actions that may cause tension in the South China Sea, undoubtedly the answer from the US will be negative. Although some ASEAN members need security support from the US, America giving direct guidance is still considered inconsistent with state-to-state exchange protocol, as well as the ASEAN style of considering each other’s comfort level. Even the Philippine’s suggestion to freeze as the first of three steps was coldly received. The Singaporean Foreign Minister questioned the proposal’s scope of application and its targets. Some countries worried that an implementation of a freeze would undermine their maritime economy and constrain their own actions. Non-disputant parties such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos are reluctant to complicate the South China Sea issue, worrying that such a scenario would take China-ASEAN cooperation hostage. 

Disappointed in Myanmar, Kerry flew to Australia, which had always been supportive of this proposal, to join his counterpart for the US-Australia 2+2 meeting. Vowing continued attention to the South China Sea situation, he hinted that the proposal was not yet finished. In a speech in Hawaii, Kerry argued that the constructive relationship between US and China is not a slogan but is defined by a “mutual embrace of the rules, the norms, and institutions that have served both of our nations and the region so well.” There is nothing wrong for Kerry to repeatedly stress “the rules” but one has to be realistic. The freeze proposal also has a positive side: it reminds China and ASEAN countries that if they don’t hold rules to resolving South China Sea disputes in their own hands, then someone else will stand to benefit. It is therefore necessary to contemplate President Xi Jinping’s statement at the CICA summit in May that “ultimately security problems in Asia should be resolved by Asians.” As a matter of fact, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed by China and ASEAN countries in 2002 represents rules by which South China Sea issues should be handled. The US also expressed appreciation of the DOC. It is the general trend and a common understanding of the foreign ministers’ meeting to speed up efforts towards a more binding COC within the DOC framework. Foreign Minister Wang’s dual-track approach is also along this line. 

In short, the freeze proposal may be an interesting trick in the South China Sea chess game, but only an earnest implementation of the DOC and advancement of the COC point to the right strategy. Hopefully some early results may be achieved towards COC at the upcoming series of ASEAN leaders’ meetings in November.

Zhai Kun is the director of the Institute of World Political Studies under China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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