South China Sea: China, US And SE Asia-ASEAN – OpEd



This piece is focused on the South China Sea where we have seen China’s action in keeping with its 9 dash-line fait accompli that goes against the ASEAN claimant states. This has to be placed in the context of China-US rivalry in the South China Sea and against the background of her rise.

China’s Rise

China’s rise is recognized as a member of the international community and it has risen above her history of humiliation. Her rise was not troubling anyone until more recent years but now recognized as a competitor, a rival and hopefully not an enemy next. But what is behind China’s rise?

In the late 1970’s onwards, if not for all the foreign investments from overseas Chinese, Japan, the European countries and later the US, China would not have risen. The outside world was naïvely obsessed by the Chinese market, the last frontier to conquer for capitalism and still so. The Chinese planned well and they caught up learning fast from the technologies brought in. They were in a position to impose conditions on foreign investors i.e. transfer of technologies (look at the R&D centres set up there) and, in exchange, market access they controlled which is still the complaint of the foreign investor. No small country in the world could impose such demands that China, as a big country, could. Learning fast and with their own efforts including improving on their own indigenous technologies China is where she is today. 

Does China appreciate what she had been given that helped her climb up the value chain? The US, Europe, Japan etc. have only themselves to blame in helping China to where it is now, its competitor, its rival in all spheres and a threat for some. There should not be any complaint from the outside of China’s rise. 

China became the workshop of the world producing the products cheap enough to be consumed by Asian and Western consumers and elsewhere. Huge profits were made by foreign multinationals. Supply chains let to or included China. Today with coronavirus there is the realization of dependence on China for the masks and allowed China to play the mask diplomacy the world over. If the outside had long term thinking they will not have put most of their eggs in the one and same basket. Immediate profits and gains led to this dependence on China behind all this talk of free and fair trade, opening up economies, interdependence, globalization, etc. etc.. What we see is that the de-localisation out of China has been to other countries and not back to the countries of origin to the benefit of some of her neighbours.

During the crisis of the 1990’s, there was the call to China to develop its large domestic market. That Chinese consumers consuming will help to keep the world economy afloat and also keep foreign companies afloat. Well China has been developing its internal market and a time will soon come when China does not depend on exports to keep its economy afloat. It could achieve some level of self-sufficiency an objective in the days of the planned economy. It is the world outside that needs to export to her market. 

China has been doing so well that it is in the position today to turn the tables around now as a world-wide investor buying up companies, its own multinationals, build infrastructures through its BRI, its AIIB as an alternative to the WB, challenge the West including Japan. Hence, competitor, rival.

During this rise and into the present, this belief that with opening up and inputs from the capitalist West, liberal democracy will be born but this has not happened. How could the West ever believe it? There are other examples of countries which did not open up politically though opening up their economies. One of these is little Singapore which China learned a lot from. There should be no thought for the moment for regime change in China. The future of China is in the hands of its young whose exposure to the outside world will make them think of change while at the moment they are satisfied with the CCP State having delivered or delivering the goods to them. Taking any anti-China stances will just make the Chinese population more nationalistic, more supportive of the CCP, for China which is a natural outcome. 

China’s economic rise of course is accompanied by its military build-up. The rationale of the US with its overwhelming military to protect its economic and political interests is the same rationale for the Chinese to do the same. Why should it be different? It is just that the US cannot accept another big challenger after the disappearance of the USSR. Big countries want to exercise, project their power. China is in the catching-up game but the US will not allow this in the mindset of a zero-sum game in all spheres. This is the frame of mind of the US but will China be like the US is another question and in what spheres, the hard and soft power spheres. It has not yet behave in the way the US has all these years: at war it seems constantly. We will see how China behaves in the future. For the US, it has to learn from history. No empire lasts forever. 

South China Sea

That future Chinese behaviour is immediate. Occupying the Spratly and Paracels and the waters around them with her 9-dash line fait accompli put China’s non-expansionist policy in doubt. They are hers in her sovereignty and national interest. It is not recognizing that those reefs, islets as being disputed which other claimants recognize, disputes even between themselves. Claimants too have occupied some islets, reefs and the waters around them but to a smaller extent. The sense of solidarity with third world countries of the Maoist era is gone and now China behaves like any other country.

Consequently, there has been the incidents of fishermen on the high seas meeting with Chinese vessels. The approach of Chinese vessels to waters of islets occupied by other claimants and just close to waters of a non-claimant state, Indonesia, also irritates. Obviously all these is the result of overlapping claims from all sides while China and her neighbours agree on the freedom of navigation. 

If China really wants friends and allies in S.E. Asia, she should behave magnanimously and benevolently in a Confucian spirit and willingly renounce all claims to these island chains and her 9-dash line. It will then be greatly appreciated and thanked. Its backyard secured. Its influence increased. Its Asian leadership accepted. There will then be no need to complete negotiations on the COC and turn completely to joint cooperation in those waters. Other claimants will also likewise drop their claims. There will be no need for bilateral negotiations which is not a level playing field perceived rather as a policy of divide and rule as she refused collective negotiations with the other claimant states. The Paracels and Spratly and all waters around them could become an international common under some kind of UN international agreement. Can this ever happened? This is a dream but nevertheless a solution.

However, there are trade and investment ties, development aid, participation in China’s BRI, cooperation in science and technology, environment, transportation, agriculture, health, culture, education, tourism and people-to-people exchanges. These are beneficial to ASEAN countries but can be seen as dependence or hindrance in taking any stand on the South China Sea as we have seen when Cambodia chaired ASEAN. The Philippines is another example under its current president who wants cooperative and beneficial relations with China putting aside a favourable tribunal ruling and distancing from its ex-coloniser, the US but suspending termination of its Visiting Forces Agreement with the US. 

Bring in the US

The US has been in the region for ages and it is normal that she will see China as threat in her American lake but she must accept that South China Sea does not belong to her. That the South China Sea belongs to no particular power but a common for all countries to pass through. In fact, the merchants of S.E. Asia had always crossed these waters centuries ago long before the US. 

Now, in the politics of the Paracels and the Spratly, their surrounding waters, the ASEAN claimants will prefer the US to stay out while they themselves handle relations with China that have resulted in the DOC and COC negotiations. It may not be the best solution but they are looking for a way out to live in peace and harmony. 

Counter-balancing is ASEAN’s policy whether China likes it or not and ASEAN does not want to be caught in any rivalry between China and the US. The ASEAN countries do not want to be forced to choose a side in an actual confrontation. They want to benefit from both superpowers economically, politically as well as security guarantors. But ASEAN will not be wooed away from the US. ASEAN wants to play the role of a bridge between both big powers to interact with the region as proclaimed. 

The US, on its part, sending its naval vessels in the name of freedom of navigation close to what China says are her own is perceived as threatening her sovereignty and security. The US in changing its neutral stand to one of supporting the ASEAN claimant states simply increases the temperature of confrontation. The US has gone back on its words and now meddling in an affair between China and her South East Asian neighbours. She is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region. 

Do the claimant states welcome the US’ change of neutrality to a supportive stand? We see Notes Verbales of the ASEAN claimant states addressed to the UN Secretary General on their claims. Is this an indication of welcoming the US’ position in taking their side? Will this not affect the COC negotiations? China too has sent her Note Verbale to the UN. All claimants called for the respect of international law and UNCLOS as the way to settle the South China Sea issue in their Notes Verbales but China rejected the arbitration and the ruling arrived at brought by the Philippines.

Where do we go from here?

S.E. Asian countries should play it cool, stay out of the rivalry as has been their policy and probably wait out the Trump era. Let’s hope that Trump will not raise further tensions in the run-up to the presidential election. ASEAN could discuss how to react in different scenarios but this could also be fraught by the different positions of the ASEAN members themselves towards China.

*Paul Joseph Lim, a retired expatriate Professor, was teaching in Malaysia. He was Co-Founder, Research Coordinator and Acting Deputy Director of the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS), Brussels while also advising on Asia in the European Parliament. Paul obtained his Licence and Doctorate at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium. He focused and published on the relations between the European Union and Asia. In his retirement, he comments and writes sporadically and his main focus is rural life, promoting communal living and walking. 

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