China may be on the verge of making a major mistake that would undermine its great gains in soft power in Southeast Asia. This comes at a time when China needs friends in the region more than ever as its economy slows, trade tensions with the U.S. rise, and security and financial concerns with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are resulting in reappraisals of its projects.
‘Soft power’ is the capability to use economic or cultural influence to shape the preferences of others. China has been arduously building its soft power in the region and has made great advances. Its most grandiose element is its BRI vision. Its implementation would make China the manager, financier, driver and core of a vast trade and economic system connecting Asia with Eurasia and Europe. http://www.atimes.com/are-the-us-and-china-on-the-brink-of-a-cold-war/As part of this grand plan, Chinese economic investment in the infrastructure of Southeast Asian countries is already benefiting and positively influencing some vis a vis China.
China has also made political advances with Southeast Asian countries particularly in military to military relations. In October 2018, China and ASEAN implemented the first China -ASEAN maritime exercises. https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/china-asean-should-hold-more-exercises-ng-eng-hen The host commander, Chinese Vice-Admiral Yuan Yubai, called the exercise an ongoing means to build confidence and understanding between ASEAN and China. https://thediplomat.com/2018/10/why-the-first-china-asean-maritime-exercise-matters/ Also in October 2018 China, Malaysia and Thailand implemented their first ever tri-lateral military exercise in the strategic Malacca Strait. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/malaysia-naval-10182018180437.html
China has territorial or maritime jurisdictional disputes with five ASEAN members – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Despite an international arbitration panel’s ruling against China’s historical nine-dash line claim to much of the South China Sea, the claims of China to high tide features in the Spratlys remain just as valid as those of the other claimants. While these territorial disputes have generated serious incidents in the past—especially with Vietnam, overall, China has more recently managed them fairly well—up till now.
As the ASEAN country coordinator for relations with China for the next three years, the Philippines has special significance for China and its ASEAN relations. China and the Philippines have been discussing joint development of natural gas in the South China Sea. If they reach agreement and its implementation is politically and economically successful, it could create a precedent for other ASEAN claimants vis a vis China and the discussions are thus being watched closely by all concerned.
But China’s soft power advances are now in danger of being undone by its increasing aggressiveness in its dispute with the Philippines near China-claimed but Philippines –occupied Thitu. Indeed China may still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in its soft power campaign in Southeast Asia. As British China expert Tim Collard suggests ” If the region comes to fear that expressions of friendship with China will be seen as weakness and attract aggressive behavior _ _ it will only increase tensions in the long term and may lead to the involvement of other major powers”. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/3005320/south-china-sea-dispute-heats-china-must-not-belittle
The arbitral tribunal also validated the Philippines 200 nautical mile (nm) Exclusive Economic Zone that includes much of the area except the 12 nm territorial seas around high tide elevations. But this particular situation seems to involve primarily disputes over territory and territorial seas.
The tiff at Thitu began when a swarm of Chinese fishing boats appeared near the feature. Some think this is in response to Philippine efforts to upgrade its facilities there combined with the fear that the Philippines might let the U.S. military use them. According to the Philippines, the presence of 275 Chinese vessels near Thitu between January and March 2019 violated its “sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction”. https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/philippines-slams-chinas-south-china-sea-flotilla/ It filed a diplomatic protest with China to this effect. https://www.dailyherald.com/article/20190405/news/304059948 The West and its media have painted this particular situation as a clear case of Chinese ‘intimidation’ of the Philippines. Joseph Felter, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia said “China’s activities are of concern. It seems to be somewhat aggressive and provocative and we feel that they’re unnecessary and unwarranted.”
So far this has been an uneasy standoff. But there are several things that could go wrong. If China attempts to actually blockade, or worse, “attack” the Philippine military on Thitu, it would likely draw an equally confrontational and aggressive response from the Philippines.
Another possibility is that the Philippines or China may try to occupy Sandy Cay—a high tide elevation claimed by both near Thitu. In this event, Philippines President Duterte would come under tremendous pressure from his opposition to either defend its claimed territory or prevent China from occupying the features. https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/its-time-for-a-new-philippine-strategy-toward-china/
Apparently Philippine navy vessels and aircraft patrol the area. If Chinese militia, or worse, Chinese coast guard or naval assets were to clash with or harass Philippine naval assets, this could trigger a call for US military assistance. According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-usa/pompeo-assures-philippines-of-us-protection-in-event-of-sea-conflict-idUSKCN1QI3NM
While this does not mean that the US military will automatically come to the Philippines’ aid, the U.S. would almost certainly become politically involved.
Indeed, this would play right into the U.S. narrative that China is bent on militarily dominating the region and is not to be trusted. It would also play into Duterte’s increasingly China-bashing opposition in the run-up to next month’s elections and this could spur him to change his friendly policy towards China. Duterte has so far dealt deftly with the China issue. But now China’s actions are embarrassing him and his administration. According to Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, “China is pretty close to exceeding” the limits that come with its ties with the Philippine government. https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2019/04/14/1909846/palace-tells-china-stop-disrupting-peace-scs Duterte has now warned Beijing to leave Thitu alone and in characteristic flamboyant fashion, declared “I will tell my solders [to] prepare for a suicide mission”. https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/mbz8db/duterte-just-threatened-to-go-on-a-suicide-mission-against-china
China needs to tread carefully in this situation. It should not be pushing the issue – either kinetically or politically. Such territorial disputes will not be permanently resolved with force –or quickly. China needs to reevaluate and prioritize what it wants and demonstrate its famous patience and long-term view to achieve the larger goal. All – including China – should revert to and maintain the pre- confrontation status quo in the South China Sea.