Ancient proverbs presage the importance attached by Chinese culture to having good neighbor relations. One states: “Anyone can buy a good house, but good neighbors are priceless.” Another says: “A close neighbor is better than a distant relative.” Such idioms have long informed Chinese policy towards its neighbors. Despite engaging in brief border conflicts with the former Soviet Union, India, and Vietnam, China resolved many of its land boundary spats through peaceful negotiations resulting to significant territorial concessions in return for border delineation and stability. Non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries has also been a cornerstone of the country’s diplomacy. But are these foundational maxims unravelling under the weight of a more self-assured and forceful Beijing?
The South China Sea is a case in point. Whatever is driving China’s recent assertiveness in this strategic maritime space, growing pushback from its neighbors and increasing deterrence from its rival makes clear the urgency of reviewing this calamitous policy shift.
Four years after a hallmark tribunal ruling that debunked the basis for China’s claims in the contested sea, the flashpoint continues to trouble Beijing’s relations with its coastal Southeast Asian neighbors. It is also emerging as a theater for a brewing great power game with its geopolitical rival, the United States. In early July, the two countries’ navies conducted overlapping maritime exercises in the semi-enclosed sea. But the US is upping the ante. A recent statement by Department of State Secretary Michael Pompeo opens a new dimension to Washington’s efforts to rollback Beijing’s attempts to consolidate its sway over the sea.
Coming at the heels of a note verbale it issued last month, the statement represents the strongest articulation thus far of American opposition to China’s maritime and resource claims in the South China Sea. This time, Washington is going beyond its longstanding interest to promote free and open seas. By calling out China’s spurious resource claims and denouncing efforts to disrupt marine economic activities of other claimants, the US relieves pressure on smaller coastal states unable to conduct resource activities within their maritime zones due to Chinese interference. National patrimony over resources within one’s internationally-recognized maritime entitlements is an issue closer to home. US Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell, in a speech given in a virtual think-tank conference in Washington, had this spot on. Given growing demands for food and energy, greater control over one’s indigenous resources easily resonate among regional states. Hence, this cause brings the US in closer communion with Southeast Asia.
If America’s blunders in the Middle East create geopolitical openings for China, Beijing’s booboos in dealing with its neighbors – whether in the Himalayas or the East and South China Seas – court US presence closer to its borders. With some success, Beijing initially tried to capitalize on frayed ties between Washington and its Pacific spokes over support for hosting US troops, and on trade and human rights issues. However, a turn to an assertive wolf warrior posture amid a pandemic spelled doom to this offshore knockoff strategy. Now, Beijing is on the defensive. Although political and funding issues may hound Washington’s proposed Pacific Deterrence Initiative, further Chinese actions in the South China Sea may encourage littoral states to ride on it given pandemic-induced contractions in their defense spending.
Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea affect China on many levels. First, it undermines its avowed policy of fostering good neighbor relations. The stream of diplomatic notes from its neighbors opposing its expansive claims in the sea in recent months complicate its ties with ASEAN. Second, clinging to its historic rights-based claims and insisting on drawing extended maritime zones from rocks or low-tide features contrary to UNCLOS make it an international pariah. Failure to reconcile its domestic claims to that prescribed by the near-universally adhered constitution of the oceans will make it an outcast in a rules-based maritime order. Third, it will affect China’s long-term maritime ambitions. Disgruntled neighbors and incensed rivals may take Beijing’s claims and actions in the sea as a harbinger of its future activities in the Indian Ocean, South Pacific and the polar regions. In a climate of escalating major power rivalry, China’s posture in the disputed sea is also becoming a convenient kickoff point to highlight Beijing’s revisionist agenda.
Worries of a potential great power clash aside, China’s recent moves in the South China Sea is giving cause for its Southeast Asian neighbors to converge with its rival. While many may not subscribe to Washington's framing of its showdown with China as a choice between free and repressive world visions, they will continue to see America as a necessary balancer to a resurgent big neighbor. The US, for all its own geopolitical interests, will still be seen as the guarantor of a longstanding maritime order increasingly challenged by China. Situated in a tough neighborhood mired in historical rivalries, jealousies and strong nationalist fervor, it is inconceivable for China to carve its own Caribbean Sea and demand deference as the undisputed regional hegemon. Attempts to the contrary will only invite further backlash from littoral neighbors and draw in competing powers from near and far.
In recent years, China has been taking exception of long running US freedom of navigation operations. But as a rising maritime power, its interests will be well served by adhering to and staying with a stable order at sea. This will require it foregoing expansive and unsupported exceptionalist maritime claims. As it develops an oceangoing blue-water navy and scouts for access to naval bases abroad to protect vital sea lanes and its merchant ships, it should revisit intolerance to foreign sail-bys and fly-bys in international waters and airspace near its shores. Reaching compromise may be better than expending much time and resources pushing US out of the region.