Friday, December 3, 2010

Asean Navigating Rough Waters in Sino-American Standoff Over Seas

Recent US affirmation of its “national interest” in maintaining the “freedom of navigation” and “respect for international law” in the disputed South China Sea has brought a new challenge to China. It also widened the margin of maneuver vis-a-vis China for the Association of South East Asian Nations. Predictably, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded with an angry outburst, labeling US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement as a diplomatic “attack on China.” Beijing also tried to spin the Asean reaction in a positive way — indicating the contours of the new diplomatic struggle it triggered.

Amidst the rhetoric, the media of each country portrayed Asean member responses as favorable to their side: The US news media lost no time in affirming how the US potential role as “honest broker” to mediate the dispute was well received by Asean members.

The Chinese media reported how Asian delegates had “congratulated” Yang after the meeting, praising China’s stance.

Despite such contradictory references to the attitudes of Asean members, noticeably missing was an actual account of how the Southeast Asian states themselves understand the issue.

After months of high-level tension and verbal jousting between China and the United States, Southeast Asia now witnesses a new phase in international resource politics.

From the Mekong River’s critical water levels to management of regional fisheries in the South China Sea and the Tonkin Gulf, resource issues are crucial to regional stability.

One only needs to look to the recent spat between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to see how resource politics can quickly escalate into diplomatic confrontation.

Sensitive disputes surrounding the South China Sea — specifically in relation to the Spratly and Paracel islands — constitute another major challenge for the region.

Three main factors are responsible for rising tensions in the area: Increasing friction over access to fishing and potential energy resources as a result of overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones, rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and most importantly, the equivocal nature of Chinese claims and actions.

China, a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, often sends mixed signals to its neighbors.

That China refused to submit a joint claim with Vietnam and Malaysia to the UN Commission on Extended Continental Shelf, but later filed an objection, attached with the notorious nine-dash line map claiming most of the sea, is an example of Chinese unpredictability.

Contrary to polarized views that Southeast Asia is on the US bandwagon to balance against a rising China or engage the latter to constrain the former, Southeast Asian responses to China’s erratic behavior are far more nuanced.

Having close historical ties to both China and the United States, Asean members frequently find themselves at the receiving end of Chinese and American actions, for better or worse.

As a result, they have developed a keen sense of pragmatism, granting them flexibility in maneuvering between these two major powers. Maintaining low-key diplomacy, whenever possible, is vital.

The decision to keep the South China Sea issue off the agenda of the inaugural Asean Defense Ministers meeting that took place this month reveals a prevalent status quo attitude.

Malaysian Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi observed, even if disputes were to arise, that Asean’s approach remains one of cooperation through “non-emotional dialogue.”

For members like Brunei, Thailand and Singapore, only indirectly involved in the disputes over the various atolls, a stance of neutrality prevails.

In such cases, peaceful dialogue and negotiations, coupled with references to legal agreements and international law, are called upon as means to resolve the issue.

This suggests that despite China’s growing assertiveness and the dubious nature of its claims, there remains a willingness to engage with it constructively, to the extent of accommodation.

Though Southeast Asia is wary of China’s expanding reach, they’re equally aware of the economic ties that bind.

As implementation of the China-Asean Free Trade Agreement demonstrates, this is not merely a case of Asean states being dependent on China, but also of China’s dependence on Southeast Asian trade and investment.

In light of this, it’s not surprising for Asean members to act pragmatically by maintaining close military ties with the United States, while cultivating closer economic relations with the People’s Republic.

Inherently linked to this reality of interdependence is the broader concern of securing regional stability. China’s peaceful rise is undeniably crucial to the region’s development and security.

It’s a matter not only of what China should do to assure others of its intentions, but also of what China’s partners can do to manage the rise in a way that benefits the region as a whole.

Even states like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, which have a direct stake in China’s overlapping EEZ claims, still opt for Asean to avoid Sino-US spats, in hopes of preventing a tripartite confrontation with Asean caught in the crossfire.

Manila, for one, was markedly forceful in trying to keep the United States at arm’s length, with Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo declaring that negotiations should strictly be between Asean and China.

He did advocate implementation of a code of conduct for resolving the issue.

This is a cautious policy, but necessarily so. Placing too much pressure on China or supporting a US interventionist role, would only harden China’s stance.

It’s imperative to keep China at the negotiating table and, in so doing, gradually co-opt it into Asean through mechanisms like Asean+3, ADMM+ or the Asean Regional Forum.

At the same time, the United States shows an obvious desire to reinvigorate its role in Southeast Asia through involvement in the South China Sea affair, which has become not so much an issue of Southeast Asian countries wanting to keep a US presence, but of the United States wanting to safeguard its presence vis-a-vis China’s growing influence in the region.

This has, in one sense, made it easier for Asean states to maintain profitable ties with both China and the United States.

It’s not that Asean members need the United States per se as a hedge against China.

Rather the United States, by pursuing its own interests, already acts the part of a natural leverage.

Outright confrontation with China has ceased to be a viable option.

Rather, constructive engagement and cooperation, with the aim of socializing China into Asean’s regional governance mechanisms, is essential to managing the rise of this re-emerging great power.

But Beijing should take note that even the friendliest of neighbors have limits to their tolerance.

Hanoi, which rarely criticizes China despite having its fishing boats seized numerous times in recent years, dismisses China’s latest seizure as “irrational,” “infringing on Vietnamese sovereignty.”

Hanoi reinforces its assertive posture with growing ties with the United States, Russia and France, as well as initiatives to strengthen its military capabilities.

Too much unreasonable behavior in the South China Sea — or elsewhere — ultimately damages Beijing’s interests.

By Pichamon Yeophantong PhD candidate and inaugural ANU China Institute scholar in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. Jakarta Globe

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