Recent years have witnessed renewed tensions over disputed territories in the South China Sea. In response to China’s encroaching military maneuvers - and the country’s (purported) designation of the whole area as part of its “core interest”, with Beijing exercising “inherent” and “indisputable” sovereignty based on historical claims-several Southeast Asian countries have found themselves dangerously vulnerable.
A murky legal regime has led to the emergence of a series of overlapping territorial claims in the area, with China, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and increasingly both Japan and the United States playing a direct role in shaping the trajectory of the maritime disputes.
The maritime disputes are based on age-old historical claims, but broader global trends in the 21st century are largely shaping the geostrategic contours of the South China Sea region. China’s rapid rise, concomitant with seemingly stark US decline in the aftermath of the 2007-08 Great Recession, is creating significant anxiety among smaller states allied to and dependent on Washington. China’s growing military expenditure, meteoric rise in high-end and cutting-edge research and innovation, and increasing geopolitical assertiveness heightened since 2009-10-is changing the complexion of international affairs.
Upon a closer inspection, however, one finds out that China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has been very sensitive to balance of power consideration. Beijing expanded its area-wide operations-culminating in the 1995 Mischief Reef incident-when Washington withdrew its bases from the Philippines in the immediate post-Cold War era. In addition, earlier China-Vietnam clashes in the South China Sea also took place when the Soviet Union showed reticence in upholding its mutual defense treaty with Vietnam.
China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea reflects its broader and evolving security doctrine. Aware of its conventional military inferiority vis-a-vis the US, especially in terms of naval power, China has stepped up the upgrading of its blue-water capabilities, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now boasting an aircraft carrier in its arsenal-highlighting China’s emphasis on greater investment in naval rather than land-based military capabilities. China’s growing confidence in terms of its land borders has allowed it to shift its focus to its adjacent waters, marking a decisive shift in the country’s strategic calculus. The South China Sea’s proximity to the mainland makes it a natural area for Chinese naval projection, as Beijing seeks to establish itself as the preeminent power in its immediate neighborhood.
But there are more immediate economic considerations influencing China’s geopolitical maneuvering in the South China Sea, including its growing stake in the global commodities trade and the necessity of securing natural resources to continue economic expansion. Energy security is a key Chinese national priority, making the South China Sea important in light of two developments: growing volatility in energy markets partly as a result of instability in the Middle East and China’s rapid development of its offshore-drilling and downstream technological capabilities. The South China Sea potentially hosts one of the world’s richest reservoirs of hydrocarbon resources, and China increasingly views its claims in the area as part of its energy security agenda. This nexus between maritime security (for domestic economic purposes) and naval domination has crystallized China’s efforts to step up its strategic maneuvers in the Western Pacific.
Above all, domestic politics also plays a role: With the demise of communist ideology amid an explosion of capitalist energies in post-Deng Xiaping, the Beijing leadership is tapping into the growing nationalist sentiments of China’s booming, educated, young and middle-class population. After all, China’s historical claim to the whole area is ingrained in the Chinese national psyche, and there is significant support for a non-compromising Chinese posturing vis-à-vis the territorial disputes in the Western Pacific.
The South China Sea conundrum is an intersection of conflicting legal interpretations and seemingly irreconcilable geo-political interests. On the legal front, there is a disjunction between domestic legal regimes and existing international law. Although countries such as the Philippines have tried to align domestic laws with international conventions, China is well known for its moves to embed external territorial claims into its constitutional framework.
The United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) could be a guideline for resolving issues in the region. But China and Southeast Asian countries have adopted divergent interpretations of certain provisions of the convention. There is no consensus on sections that tackle the “regime of islands,” which seek to clarify the nature of rocks and atolls in the South China Sea, and their corresponding jurisdictional implications for the party that occupies them. Even the DOC is a non-binding declaration which leaves no mechanism for monitoring and enforcing its implementation.
The 2005 Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU), signed by the Philippines, Vietnam, and China, was a novel attempt at transforming the issue into a potential source of cooperation. But China is the only party that is truly capable of pushing sustained and expansive exploration schemes. Besides, the Chinese are said to have used the agreement-fraught with secrecy and questionable provisions- as a springboard to extend their claims into other hydrocarbon-rich areas well beyond the scope of the agreement.
Although many analysts tend to adopt a dichotomous understanding of China’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia, either bilateralist or multilateralist, in reality China is using a sophisticated bi-multilateralist approach. Under this doctrine, China tends to use multilateralism as a component of its charm-offensive strategy, but it simultaneously utilizes bilateral ties in order to reinforce, if not impose, its interests. Given China’s huge economic clout, its investment prowess, and its wide network of socio-political connections - especially with Chinese communities across Southeast Asia-it has been very savvy in influencing its smaller neighbors, constraining their room for maneuvering.
Two decades of charm offensive and rapid economic growth have allowed China to deepen its presence among Southeast Asian countries, especially in the realm of investment and economics. As the second largest-soon to be biggest-economy in the world, China represents a key market for many resource-exporting countries in the region, from Myanmar and Indonesia to the Philippines and Malaysia.
Moreover, China’s so-called Beijing Consensus has transformed it into a major source of concessional loans, cheap and affordable technology, and favorable investment opportunities. China’s growing middle class is also becoming a major boon for the regional tourism industry.
With China becoming involved in strategic infrastructural development schemes-from railways to highways- Beijing has become central to the national development of its southern neighbors. Conscious of its economic influence, China has become more confident in pushing its political agenda. Despite growing regional interdependence-from industrial vertical integration to intra-regional complementary trade-China holds immense leverage over its neighbors. The primacy of economic considerations is allowing China to shape the geopolitical architecture of the region.
The ASEAN element
By East Asian standards, ASEAN is a fairly developed institutional body designed to facilitate economic integration and security cooperation. However, it is more of a soft institution, focusing on confidence-building and preventive diplomacy rather than conflict resolution/management: ASEAN either totally shuns controversial issues-in the spirit of non-interference-or fails to develop needed enforcement mechanisms. Although lacking both- teeth and resolve- on intractable issues, the institution itself is plagued by internal divisions.
On the South China Sea issue, for instance, members have taken varying positions. Laos and Cambodia are believed to be more sympathetic to China; Malaysia and Indonesia have cautioned against Washington’s meddling; Thailand and Singapore, and increasingly Myanmar, have taken a more neutral stance; and Vietnam and the Philippines, wary of balance-of-power considerations, have called for more decisive US policy on the issue. ASEAN might have shown considerable success in the realm of economic integration and trade-facilitation, but hard security issues continue to expose its fundamental weaknesses. These realities have allowed China to conduct its diplomatic tango with considerable ease.
During the 2011 ASEAN Regional Forum, regional leaders adopted guidelines on a more formal, binding regional code of conduct. In reality, nothing has changed on the ground. Meanwhile, China has been able to project a more responsible image by facilitating the drafting and adoption of the so-called guidelines. On the surface, calmer heads seem to have prevailed, considering the huge economic interests at stake.
Locked in a bitter and increasingly ferocious maritime standoff with China, Vietnam and the Philippines have, especially since 2010, heavily banked on revitalized security ties with Washington to push back a resurgent China.
The leadership transition in China, meanwhile, saw President Xi Jinping’s swift and firm consolidation of power over the state apparatus-accompanied by a non-stop escalation in the country’s diplomatic and para-military push into the Western Pacific. Backed by a booming military expenditure and grappling with rising popular nationalism, the Chinese leadership has chosen to play the territorial card in order to preserve domestic legitimacy amid growing economic uncertainties and social discontent.
Against such gloomy backdrop, Vietnam and the Philippines, have also sought deeper security ties with other Asian powers such as Japan and India to keep a rising China in check. With Vietnam’s former Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh now occupying the helm of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Vietnam taking increasingly pro-active position on resolving South China Sea disputes to the delight of Manila and other partners, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision of a Pacific alliance of like-minded states is ever-closer to fruition.
A re-emphasis on balance of power politics is due to the inadequacies of an institutional-legal remedy. China has squarely rejected the Philippines’ push for international arbitration of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, despite vocal support by the European Union and the United States. Multilateral measures, under the auspices of the ASEAN, have fallen short of just even developing guidelines for a binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the disputed waters, leaving member states with the non-binding rhetoric of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC).
While contending that it has ‘indisputable’ and ‘inherent’ sovereignty over disputed maritime features, basically undercutting any serious attempt at legally disaggregating wide-ranging territorial disputes, China’s military has been creating facts on the ground, through a so-called ‘cabbage strategy’: Chinese Navy (PLAN) supporting a batch of surveillance vessels escorting ‘fishermen’ to disputed features.
For many experts, it seems that Japan and China have, meanwhile, been sleepwalking into full-scale conflict over disputed features in the East China Sea. On its part, India has not only been alarmed by China’s sabotage activities against its joint energy projects with Vietnam in the hydrocarbon-rich areas of the South China Sea, but also alarmed the PLA troops’ reported intrusions into India’s claimed territories along the disputed Himalayan borders.
The South China Sea disputes have tested the mettle of the ASEAN, especially in 2012 (under Cambodia’s chairmanship) when member states were explicitly divided over issuing a joint statement on the maritime conflicts. But Brunei’s chairmanship in 2013 saw China re-agreeing to discuss a legally-binding CoC, albeit only in principle. There were subsequent discussion in late-2013 over developing guidelines of the CoC, but there has been no significant movement on this front. If the ASEAN wants to remain relevant, maintain regional stability, and push ahead with a viable Economic Community in 2015, it should step up its efforts on the CoC issue.
As the new chairman of the ASEAN, Myanmar should leverage its diversified foreign relations to bridge differences between Beijing and member states such as Manila and Hanoi. As the informal leader of the ASEAN, Indonesia should build on its earlier diplomatic efforts, especially the “Six Point Principles” that emphasizes the region’s commitment to peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the South China Sea disputes.
There should be a concerted effort at fast-tracking the establishment of a mutually-agreeable group of experts and eminent persons-ideally from ASEAN as well as China-to oversee the drafting of the guidelines for a CoC, while the ASEAN leadership should seriously consider the establishment of relevant institutional mechanisms to enforce any future agreed-upon CoC.
Vietnam and the Philippines should release joint statements - to be echoed in varying regional and international fora by the diplomatic representatives of both countries-calling for the cessation of outright military threats issued by Chinese elements against neighboring countries, for these actions violate the principles that underpin China-ASEAN ties as well as varying international legal regimes to which China has subscribed.
In the likely event that the Philippines’ arbitration case at the Hague succeeds to proceed, despite China’s unwillingness to participate in the adjudication proceedings, other Asian countries with similar territorial disputes with China should seriously consider following such move through filing a similar case at a relevant international body. There are at least three strategic rationale for this decision:
Currently, the Philippines is the only country to have introduced a legal front in China’s territorial battles. While this is a laudable move on the Philippines’ part, it nevertheless provides China an opportunity to punish and isolate the Philippines;
Although filing a legal case against China carries some risk for other Asian countries, who have their own unique bilateral dynamics with Beijing, the bigger and more certain threat is that in absence of coordinated legal battle on the part of China’s neighbors, Beijing will most likely push ahead with progressively changing facts on the ground and downplaying the Philippines’ arbitration complaint, thinking it can accommodate a limited legal challenge on the part of a single ASEAN country;
The Philippines, Vietnam, India and Japan should step up their bilateral cooperation by looking at increased joint exercises among their Coast Guard and other relevant maritime patrol agencies, with increased focus on showing solidarity - to send a clear message to China-as well as enhancing inter-operability among their maritime agencies.
In this regard, these countries should establish special committees, composed of experts and former officials with relevant experience, which will focus on drafting a roadmap for increased strategic relationship and how the these countries can coordinate their policies in the Western Pacific, especially in the South China Sea. After all, Japan, India, and other Pacific powers such as Australia share interest in freedom of navigation in international waters and the peaceful resolution of the disputes.
Moreover, both India and Japan could provide much-needed naval and strategic assistance to the Philippines and Vietnam to battle emerging military threats in the South China Sea.
(The author, a specialist on Asian geopolitics and economic affairs, is lecturer in international affairs and political science at Ateneo De Manila University)