Mounting international backlash on its position in the South China Sea may prompt Beijing to signal a possible return to a charm offensive in Southeast Asia. With Europe joining the fray and issuing a diplomatic note rejecting Chinese maritime claims and Quad talks to be held in Tokyo early next month, pressure from major powers are building up on China. Against this backdrop, China may recommit to regional attempts to resolve the disputes to frustrate efforts by non-claimants to intervene in the negotiations. However, the success of this shift rests on whether its littoral neighbors see it as credible and enduring instead of merely tactical and fleeting.
ASEAN countries have been major recipients of Chinese medical assistance in the fight against Covid-19. Both sides also discussed ways to promote economic recovery. In early August, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for the resumption of stalled Code of Conduct (COC) talks. Ahead of ASEAN meetings early this month, State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe also paid visits to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. But notwithstanding these welcome gestures, China’s recent moves in the flashpoint amid a pandemic undermined its message. From creating new administrative districts, establishing research stations in its artificially-built features to continued interference in the marine economic activities of its coastal neighbors, the reassurance does not match the actions taking place on the ground. Furthermore, the nature of these activities suggest that Beijing is not merely responding to United States’ freedom-of-navigation operations and exercises, but is also attempting to consolidate its position in the strategic waterway.
Viewed from this angle, one can argue that Beijing is using U.S. forays as a pretext to normalize its actions in the contested sea. This said, Washington’s tougher position—best exemplified in its July statement arguing that China is treating the semi-enclosed sea as its “maritime empire”—certainly provoked strong reaction from Beijing. This position paper was followed by the inclusion of about two dozen Chinese infrastructure companies involved in building China’s Great Wall of Sand over the sea in the U.S. entity list. American reconnaissance flights have also increased in frequency and have gone closer to the Chinese mainland raising the stakes for a repeat of a 2001 incident when a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy aircraft collided with a PLA Navy fighter aircraft that intercepted it.
The renewed calls to restart COC talks may be driven by a growing unease on China’s part. In the recent ASEAN-China virtual Foreign Ministers meeting early this month, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin said that COC talks would resume no later than November. Notwithstanding the urgency of concluding the code at the soonest possible time, such a timetable can give Beijing a lead in dealing with its neighbors before other major powers can possibly intervene. Japan is still coming to grips with its new leader, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is more adept in domestic politics than in foreign policy. But hosting a Quad summit as his first big foreign policy event may have sent alarm bells for Beijing, prompting it to relieve possible pressure in its southern flank before rivals’ position harden. A new U.S. administration may also take time to settle down in office after elections in early November. It also remains to be seen how Europe intends to follow through their tough diplomatic note. The posture and actions of these other maritime powers play into the calculus of claimants and may help determine the degree of pushback they may exert and their willingness to compromise with Beijing. But while lesser claimants leverage engagement with these powers to mitigate their huge power gap vis-à-vis their big northern neighbor, China long resented the same as unwanted foreign meddling. Thus, striking the iron while its hot may pay dividends for China.
Other important factors are also at play. Vietnam’s stint as ASEAN Chair is winding down and it will soon pass on the torch to Brunei, a low-key claimant that may not push the maritime agenda as strongly as Hanoi. Pandemic response and recovery dashed efforts to banner the dispute as a priority agenda for the bloc this year. The absence of actual high-level summits also did not help. Even at the bilateral level among frontline claimants, regular venues were also put in abeyance. The sixth Philippines-China bilateral consultation mechanism meeting slated to be hosted by Manila in the early part of this year is yet to be convened. The fifth meeting took place in Beijing last October. Furthermore, the window of time for a friendlier Philippine government which currently plays the role of ASEAN-China country coordinator is also closing in. No wonder, both sides, not least China, prefers to conclude the COC by 2022.
Growing international support for the landmark 2016 arbitration ruling may have also compounded China’s worries in prolonging COC negotiations. In his speech before the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, President Rodrigo Duterte, despite his warm ties with Beijing, welcomed the growing constituency within the community of nations in favor of the award. He said that the award is “now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon,” adding that Manila “firmly reject attempts to undermine it.” Philippines, Indonesia, U.S., Australia, and recently U.K., France, and Germany all issued note verbales directly referencing the award, while Vietnam and Malaysia released similar notes rejecting China’s position as inconsistent with international law. Such diplomatic notes repudiated maritime claims anchored on historic rights and claims for extended maritime entitlements drawn from low-tide features as contrary to international law, notably UNCLOS.
Rising international pressure may encourage China to fast track discussions for a COC. But given the amount of work that needs to be done and fundamental issues about the nature of the code that has to be resolved, the eleven parties have the work cut out for them to meet the agreed 2022 deadline. Given the sea’s strategic value and the desire of ASEAN to have strategic autonomy, especially in light of growing great power competition, it is unrealistic to discount the impact of interested non-claimants. The crux of the matter lies on how and when they can interject and whether such can contribute in putting to rest one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.
This article was published by Analyzing War