Fifteen years ago, Prof. Juwono Sudarsono warned that “barring the possibility that China can gain access to resources other than the South China Sea area, then ASEAN countries will have to face the possibility of an imminent military confrontation with China”. (The Jakarta Post, Aug. 7, 1996). Dewi Fortuna Anwar agreed, and was even bolder when she stated that “China respects strength. If they see you as being weak, they will eat you alive.” (International Herald Tribune, Aug. 16, 1996).
By early in the 21st century, however, such perceptions of China had changed significantly. Aware of how it was perceived in Southeast Asia, China began to embark on charm diplomacy. It participated in ASEAN-driven multilateral processes. By 2002, it signed the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) with ASEAN countries, laying the foundation for peaceful management of the dispute among the claimants.
As China’s economic rise increasingly benefited ASEAN countries, the relationship between the two sides also improved significantly. Within a decade, China had won recognition from regional countries as a positive force for peace and development. Most Southeast Asian leaders, scholars and politicians began to see China more as a partner rather than a threat.
Now, in 2011, it is indeed unfortunate that many in Southeast Asia have begun to wonder whether all the good things that come with China’s rise might not be long-lasting. Many begin to worry whether all the positive features in China’s policy towards the region are about to change. Voices coming out of China of late, and particularly China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, have become more and more puzzling for many regional countries.
After listening to statements made by some military officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and reading a series of articles and op-eds published in the Global Times, a popular newspaper published by China’s Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, one would think that Prof. Sudarsono’s forecast might no longer be a far-fetched prediction.
Let me just highlight two recent examples. On Sept. 29, 2011, the Times ran an opinion article titled “Time to teach those around South China Sea a lesson” calls for “a punishment” to be mounted against Vietnam and the Philippines, and that China “should make good preparations for a small-scale battle while giving the other side the option of war or peace.” On Oct. 25, an editorial even warned that “if these countries don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sound of cannon. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved.” These are strong words indeed.
The response from China’s government has been curious as well. When asked about the newspapers remarks, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said that “China’s media have the right to freely say what they like…” (the Post, Oct. 26, 2011). While that surely is the case in a democracy, it is hard to believe that is also the case in China. Therefore, the “alternative” view of the “free” media different from the more official position of China’s government still raises a lot of questions.
Do such hard-line voices receive tacit support and blessing from the government? Or, do they reflect the ongoing internal struggle between hard-line conservative nationalists and the more pragmatic internationalists within China? Or, does it simply reflect the growing dominant voices of nationalism and assertiveness of those within the PLA in China’s foreign and security policy-making?
Clarity of understanding of the nature of China’s politics is absolutely necessary if we are to fully understand the real meaning of those calls for war coming out of the state-controlled media such as the Global Times. Such a clarity is, however, hard to come by. To the outside world, China is represented by multiple actors and projects multiple identities. In terms of foreign policy, the Communist Party, the Foreign Ministry, and the PLA are all significant actors. In terms of its identity, we are presented with both benign and aggressive China. The problem is, we do not really know which actor and which identity represents the real China.
All parties to the dispute should understand that tough talk is not helpful, if not counter-productive. Before things get out of control, ASEAN and China need to sit down, engage in productive dialogue and start discussing how to prevent tension and conflict over the South China Sea. That should start with a process of negotiating the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, sooner rather than later.
The writer is the executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta.
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