Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why Obama’s Asian tour matters

US President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines is confirmation that America-led bilateral security relationships remain the backbone of peace and stability in the region.

Even so, the greater military power and economic weight of countries such as Japan might tempt weaker Southeast Asian capitals to stay on the sidelines when it comes to tensions in the East China Sea, and adopt a less direct and confrontational approach to keeping Chinese behavior in check in the South China Sea.

That would be a mistake. Essential to Beijing’s “divide and rule” strategy is to convince states that its interests in the East China Sea are unrelated to those in the South China Sea, and vice versa. In reality, Southeast Asian states should realize that as far as China is concerned, the latter’s maritime claims are indivisible.

Known for the creative multilateral diplomacy that only smaller states tend to pursue, it is time that key players within ASEAN push for a Code of Conduct that prohibits the use of force to settle territorial disputes to cover all maritime regions in the Asia-Pacific, and not just the South China Sea.

China’s strategic interests in the East and South China Seas are obvious: making good on its claims in the region would allow it an unimpeded strategic breakout beyond the so-called constraints of the First Island Chain; an imaginary line stretching from Northeast China, through Japan and the Ryukyu archipelago, the Philippines and down to the Strait of Malacca.

But there is more than naval strategy at play. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now committed to the fiction that China is simply restoring the proper strategic and territorial order that has stood for millennia, ignoring the reality that the self-designated middle kingdom is only one of several historic kingdoms and polities with longstanding interests in the region.

In particular, and in its commitment to recreate what the CCP sees as the natural condition of a “greater China”, reclaiming its “historic waters” in the East and South China seas is becoming central to the CCP’s political raison d’etre.

These claims have been reaffirmed as essential elements of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” and figure prominently in various official documents produced by the People’s Liberation Army such as its Defense White Paper.

Importantly, and having been entrenched in state-sanctioned official histories, the “greater China” fiction increasingly shapes the contemporary outlook and expectations of a growing number of Chinese elites as the country’s unregulated media such as blog sites would attest to.

This sense of reclaiming what is a contrived history partially explains why China has become more, rather than less trenchant about its maritime claims even as it is rising in the most benign strategic environment that the country has faced for centuries. After all, no major power questions China’s control over territories that it currently administers in Tibet and Xinjiang, while any military invasion of the mainland would be unthinkable.

Yet, Beijing’s redrawing of its infamous nine-dash line in the South China Sea now includes the Natuna waters, meaning that Indonesia now joins Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei as countries with maritime disputes with China.

This brings us back to Southeast Asian diplomacy. These states have generally remained silent when tensions between Japan and China have arisen in the East China Sea — which suits an already isolated China just fine.

Yet, just as the CCP’s claims in both these maritime regions is part and parcel of its “greater China” concept, Beijing is pursuing the same “talk and take” strategy in both of these seas: ostensibly speak the language of negotiation while entrenching its de facto control over the disputed regions square mile by square mile.

It is time for the key players within ASEAN to realize that every bit of ground, actual or perceived, Beijing makes in the East China Sea will only embolden and steel the resolve of Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea. In other words, successfully rebuffing Chinese bullying and pushing of the envelope in the East China Sea serves the interests of maritime nations in the South China Sea.

To be sure, China will vociferously reject the notion that one Code of Conduct should apply to all maritime regions in Asia, much less accept that such a unified Code should be binding.

That is beside the point. Like any great power wanting a change to the status quo, Beijing will not relinquish the option of force in resolving maritime disputes. But one can at least win the diplomatic argument, and doing so is largely about getting others on side, and thrusting the burden of justification onto the other side.

If Southeast Asian nations were to get Japan, South Korea and America to support such a unified code — something that is eminently feasible — the onus would be upon Beijing to justify its rejection of such a unified code and maximize the region-wide diplomatic fall out as it goes about doing so.

This might not actually restrain further assertive action by China — but it will raise the non-military cost of such behavior.
John Lee, Sydney |is the Michael Hintze fellow and adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney, non-resident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation.


1 comment:

  1. A case of over-pivoting
    The military treaty US President Barack Obama signed in Manila this week has raised the tension in Asia a notch. The fact that Obama talked at length about protecting America’s allies in the region on his Asian visit, which also took him to Tokyo, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur, certainly did not help cool the situation.

    He irked Beijing as it is obvious to all that his speeches, and the treaty with the Philippines, targeted China, which has had series of standoffs with most of its neighbors of late over territorial claims in the North China Sea and the South China Sea.

    In Jakarta, we wonder whether our friends and neighbors are giving up on diplomacy to resolve, or at the very least, to manage these tensions.

    Obama’s Asian tour reaffirmed the US policy of “rebalancing” its military presence more toward Asia, from the Atlantic and Middle East.

    While professing that the US does not take sides in territorial disputes of its allies and friends in Asia, it pledges to come to their succor if they come under attack. It claims that the stationing of American soldiers, on a rotating basis, is intended to help build the military capacity of its allies as well as for humanitarian purposes such as disaster relief operations.

    Who are they kidding? Their presence is to counterweight the rising power of China.

    Southeast Asia seems to take much of the brunt of the current US pivot to Asia. Already there are talks of reviving an old US airbase in U-Tapao in Thailand; Vietnam is warming up to the idea of hosting a facility for visiting US navy ships at Cam Ranh. Singapore already hosts the presence of American soldiers, as does Darwin in Australia.

    The US is back in Southeast Asia, though not to the same extent as during the peak of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, but its rising presence may be abetting the tension, and not necessarily reducing it.

    The fact that many of our neighbors are laying out the red carpet undermines Indonesia’s efforts in building greater unity through the ASEAN. An ASEAN Community in 2015 has become that much more elusive.

    Indonesia as a matter of principle should not give up on diplomacy, or give in to the pressure to join its neighbors in siding with one or the other powers in the region. We have to have more faith in diplomacy. The alternative is simply unthinkable.
    Editorial Jakarta Post