By Jian Junbo
LONDON – China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have reached consensus on guidelines for handling territorial disputes over the South China Sea between China and some ASEAN member states – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Talks were held at a China-ASEAN foreign ministers meeting on Indonesia’s Bali Island on July 19, with formal guidelines adopted two days later. The guideline aims at ensuring concrete implementation of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which was adopted by China and ASEAN in 2002.
The DOC is not a legal treaty to regulate the concerned parties’ conduct, and it could be said the adoption of the guidelines is the
natural result of several meetings held on the implementation of the DOC between senior Chinese and ASEAN officials in recent years.
Beijing considers the guidelines to be significant for China-ASEAN relations. “[It’s] an important milestone document on the cooperation among China and ASEAN countries”, said Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin. “We have a bright future and we are looking forward to future cooperation”.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said both the DOC and the guidelines encourage the resolution of disputes through cooperation and negotiation. “[We should go] step by step. Now we have to start these projects as soon as possible and to achieve results. Go step by step. Of course, when the conditions are ripe, we are willing to discuss with ASEAN to set up the code of conduct on the South China Sea”, he said in Bali.
Certain ASEAN member states have welcomed the guidelines. Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam hailed them as an important “breakthrough”, while Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem welcomed the consensus at the meeting.
These guidelines show the world that ASEAN and China have the ability to handle their differences, said Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary general of ASEAN.
The most powerful supporter of the countries lined up against China, the United States, also welcomed the agreement. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised China and ASEAN for defusing recent tensions.
“I want to commend China and ASEAN for working so closely together to include implementation guidelines for the declaration of conduct in the South China Sea,” she said before meeting Yang Jiechi. Simultaneously, Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs said the US views the adoption of the guideline as “an important first step. It has lowered the tensions, improved atmospherics,” although he also added “we’re going to need to see follow-on interactions between China and ASEAN”.
It seems only one ASEAN member country was not satisfied with this guideline – the Philippines. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario claimed that factors necessary for the successful implementation of the guideline were “incomplete”, complaining about its failure to specifically deal with Manila’s territorial disputes with China.
Nevertheless, with the consensus reached, the South China Sea situation can stabilize – at least for the time being.
In recent weeks, China has become entangled in disputes with several neighbors in the region, the most heated quarrels being with Vietnam and the Philippines. It’s obvious the US stood behind these two countries, encouraging them to antagonize China.
The United States held joint naval exercises with Vietnam and also with the Philippines while tensions were high between China. Reportedly, the US sold a patrol ship to the Philippines shortly before the China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting started.
Using countries in the region to unsettle Beijing is a common trick in the US’s playbook as part of its strategy to interfere in China’s bilateral relations. The US has lost nothing with what was achieved at the Bali meeting.
At first glance it seems China has yielded to agreeing to multilateral discussions on the South China Sea issue, bending its principles of dealing with all such territorial disputes bilaterally. In other words, with the consensus reached at Bali, China now recognizes ASEAN, a multinational organization, as a institution to work with, instead of its prior insistence on dealing with claimants individually.
While this is not the first time China has discussed the South China Sea with ASEAN, this was the first time other players such as the US, Japan and Australia used ASEAN as a platform to discuss the topic. The US in particular enjoys seeing the issue internationalized.
However, under closer scrutiny it can been seen that China hasn’t stepped back from its position on dealing with territorial disputes on the South China Sea bilaterally. Although the issue will be submitted to ASEAN meetings, China hasn’t agreed to discuss the sovereignty issue with members such as Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
This is evident in the guidelines not mentioning the sovereignty issue, instead they cover functional affairs about cooperation in South China Sea in areas like marine technological research, rescue, and anti-pirate efforts and so on. While the guideline will likely help to reduce tensions in the region for the time being, the rules fail to address core conflicts between China and the Southeast Asian claimants.
For Beijing, the core issue of sovereignty must not be resolved by radical approaches such as war, nor through multilateral arenas. Instead, it must be resolved with flexible, step-by-step pragmatism, especially as the situation in the region grows increasingly more complicated.
China believes the major aim of Washington’s “return to Asia” is to softly contain China’s rise, with supporting countries that have territorial disputes with China part of the strategy. The majority of Chinese people share this view, especially after the Obama administration started pulling US troops out from Afghanistan and Iraq. It is also seen in the US improving relations with the Arab world and reinforcing ties with its allies in East Asia.
For many Chinese, it’s self evident the US is pursuing two tracks to deal with China’s rise. On the one hand it wants to strengthen economic relations with China, to borrow more and tap into China’s fast economic growth. It seeks cooperation with China for help with global issues and such disputes force China to take more international responsibility. On the other hand, however, the US is working hard to contain China with a soft approach.
Because of this, Washington would like to see more disputes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea rather than more cooperation. Comments made by Clinton and Campbell on the DOC guidelines were simply not from the heart.
Almost every neutral observer is aware of the US tactic. The question is whether ASEAN and its members will always play along on Washington’s side? Relatively small countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Brunei have to take geopolitical and geoeconomic realities into consideration, as well as the balance of power between China and the US. They are unlikely to ever totally side with one party, meaning Washington’s “soft containment” policy needs to be constantly fine-tuned.
For Beijing, maintaining stability and the status quo on the South China Sea is in the shared interests of China and ASEAN countries. As long as Vietnam or the Philippines don’t cross the red line too far, China will keep silent. After all, the islands and waters that China claims sovereignty over are still physically occupied by these neighbors.
Domestic Chinese sentiment must also be taken into account since the DOC guidelines were adopted at a time when Beijing faces growing pressure from nationalists at home. Many Chinese people, typically young netizens, have criticized the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry and even the central government for what they call an “appeasement policy” and even “national betrayal” over the South China Sea. The netizens point to Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ continuous challenges to China’s tolerance in the past weeks, considered by many Chinese as a national humiliation. In order to keep stability in Southeast Asia and break through the “soft containment” of the US, the Chinese government has risked losing legitimacy back home.
It is certain that the US, as a conceited international hegemon, will continuously take advantage of conflicts between China and its neighbors over the South China Sea, to softly obstruct China’s rise. In turn, China will oppose US interference by trying to deal with the disputes bilaterally.
How the game develops depends on how US policy toward China and Sino-US bilateral relations evolve, and also partially on China’s domestic situation. If the nationalism now being effectively suppressed by Beijing erupts into internal strife and threatens the center’s legitimacy, the government may well be forced to take a harsher line on South China Sea issues.