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US Must Understand Both Sides of the South China Sea Issue

May 11 , 2013
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

A popular belief in the Obama administration is that regional countries are greatly concerned about China’s rise and spontaneously look to the US to stem Chinese assertiveness. Accordingly, the US should increase its presence, especially its military presence in the region, in order to provide support for regional countries and to counterbalance China. However, the truth is that the US may need to understand the other part of the story, especially when it comes to the South China Sea.

Is China Really a Dragon to be Defeated?

Compared with the US, Southeast Asian countries have a more balanced judgment on China’s role in the region. The most serious challenge for China’s relationship with Southeast Asian countries is the South China Sea issue. In fact, China is not the initiator of problems. It is the claimants, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, who changed the status quo.

For years, these countries have expressed their misgivings and concerns about China’s rapid development, especially the achievements in economic and military capacities. They believe “time is on China’s side” and they would be in a disadvantageous position dealing with China to end territorial disputes.

With this in mind, the Philippines and Vietnam obviously adopted more and more aggressive positions and approaches. In 2009, Philippine President Arroyo signed Republic Act No.9522, also known as the Philippine Archipelagic Baselines Law, which claimed the country exercises sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Huangyan Island. Since then, the two countries have carried out a variety of actions that complicated the South China Sea issue. Various actions have been taken. In 2012, the harassment of Chinese fishermen by a Philippine naval ship triggered the Huangyan Island incident, which marked the most serious standoff in the related waters.

What is worse, the claimants are making the South China Sea issue a problem for the US and ASEAN. Vietnam and the Philippines have sought support from the US to counterbalance China. At the same time, they succeeded in fitting the South China Sea issue into the ASEAN agenda on various occasions.

The South China Sea issue has cast a shadow on China’s relationship with some Southeast Asian countries. However, most regional countries don’t believe China is aiming to become a regional hegemon.

Quite a few scholars and officials from regional countries admitted that China’s policies concerning the South China Sea issue are mostly responsive. China neither started a change of the status quo on purpose nor changed the position that the territorial disputes should be solved between related parties through peaceful approaches. ASEAN approved China’s signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the follow-up efforts implementing the DOC.

Besides, China did not close the door for the potential signing of the Code of Conduct (COC). On the contrary, China has been working with related parties toward a jointly accepted outcome. China has also reaffirmed that the South China Sea issue is not a problem between China and ASEAN.

In addition, China has not and will not force Southeast Asian countries to choose between China and ASEAN. China values the unity of ASEAN and persists in respecting ASEAN’s leadership in regional cooperation and supporting the construction of the ASEAN community and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

On the whole, China has been trying to develop the relationship with neighboring countries and establish the image of a responsible player in the region. Even in the context of being challenged by some countries, China continues to persist in peaceful development and work on building a harmonious regional environment. China’s development and increasing regional influence is acceptable for most countries.

Is the US the Only Choice for Regional Countries?

Fundamentally, Southeast Asian countries value the opportunities for economic development, and at the same time, they pay attention to the developments in regional security. Their attitude toward the US rebalance is dependent on their judgment of US policy intentions and US influence on the regional economic development and security environment. Accordingly, it will be difficult for regional countries to sacrifice their own interests to assist the implementation of US policies.

Southeast Asian countries also attach importance to their relationship with China. The economic ties between China and ASEAN are strong and irreplaceable. China remains ASEAN’s largest trading partner. Meanwhile, ASEAN is China’s third largest trading partner. The trade volume between China and ASEAN exceeded $400 billion in 2012. In comparison, the economic relationship between the US and ASEAN cannot outweigh the one between China and ASEAN.

The regional countries realize that they will be in a favorable position if they balance between and benefit from both sides. They are reluctant to be forced to choose between China and the US, which forces the regional countries into an awkward predicament.

The US needs to understand that even though it shares some common goals with Southeast Asian countries, they are actually strange bedfellows.

Su Xiaohui, Deputy Director, Department of International and Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies

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