The South China Sea has been relatively quiet politically over the past few months. But that does not mean nothing is happening behind the scenes. Indeed, the principle protagonists — China and the U.S. — and Southeast Asian countries caught in between them — are trying to figure out what to do next — how, when and where. Once their strategies gel and begin to clash in real time, the South China Sea will return to its politically and militarily tempestuous and dangerous self.
China has not changed — nor will it change trying to achieve what it considers its rightful destiny — its irredentist goal of wresting dominance in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia from the U.S. But in the face of stepped up US military and political pressure and push back from some rival claimants like the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia– it is recalibrating its strategy and tactics. The need to not further politicize next month’s Olympics is also a factor.
China wants to continue to press what it considers its rights to at least a share of the resources in others’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) without pushing its rivals into the growing US coalition against it. To reach this balance it is trying to find the right mix of patience, perseverance, economic ‘diplomacy’ and ‘gray zone’ tactics.
As for increasing military pressure from the U.S. and its allies, from its perspective, China has little choice but to respond tit-for-tat. Its leadership has painted itself into a corner with its nationalists and will lose credibility and even legitimacy if it backs down. The U.S. and its allies need to understand this and not push its leadership into this corner.
Politically it will continue to paint the U.S. and its allies as an outside interloper, trouble maker and hypocrite. It will also continue to try and convince at least some of ASEAN that for the sake of peace and stability in the region, the U.S. should dial down its anti-China rhetoric and military presence in the South China Sea..
Meanwhile the U.S. is also recalibrating its approach. It wants to continue to balance China militarily without unduly frightening or over committing to its friends, partners and allies in the region. Indeed, it has to be careful not to be drawn into a conflict with China not of its choosing by rash actions of its friends and allies.
The U.S. has declared that engagement with ASEAN is an important initiative for 2022. As many in the region have requested, it is stepping up its economic diplomacy. Its recently announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework will compete with the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and China’s grand Belt and Road Initiative. But the details have yet to be worked out and its effectiveness remains to be seen.
Some Southeast Asian countries would also like it to lighten up on its military first approach. They would probably appreciate a reduction of its more provocative actions against China like close in intelligence probes and Freedom Of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). This would be welcomed by those Southeast Asian countries that worry about the collateral damage of a US-China clash. But ignoring their concerns, the U.S. continues to press China with displays of power in the South China Sea. On 11 January an aircraft carrier strike group and a landing helicopter dock group entered the Sea for joint exercises clearly aimed at China that included integrated maritime strike missions and anti-submarine warfare.
The U.S. also stepped up its lawfare campaign releasing yet another official document opposing China’s claims and accusing it of violating the “rules-based international maritime order”. In doing so, it reiterated its call for “the PRC to conform its maritime claims to international law and comply with the international arbitration decision against it, and cease its unlawful and coercive activities in the South China Sea”. The document may well influence ASEAN-China negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea and may have been intended to do so. Collectively these actions indicate subtle but significant adjustments in the integrated US approach to the issues..
Southeast Asian countries — especially China’s rival claimants the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia that are the objects of this political tug of war — are also recalibrating their hedging between the two.
The Philippines will elect a new president in May. The country’s approach to the South China sea issues will be a major issue in the campaign. According to Philippines analyst Lucio Blanco Pinto the new President will face at least three balancing acts: maintaining and enhancing economic relations with its major benefactor China while protecting its rights in the South China Sea against China’s aggressive actions; enhancing its military ties with the U.S. while not overly antagonizing China; and reacting to the U.S.-led anti-China initiatives like the Quad and AUKUS—without alienating either the U.S. or China and undermining ‘ASEAN centrality.’
Vietnam is striving to balance its determination to defend its claims and national interests in the South China Sea against aggressive Chinese actions while maintaining good relations with China and its ‘three nos’ policy–no participation in military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory and no reliance on one country to fight against another. This is an extremely delicate dance that requires constant monitoring and adjustments.
The heavyweight in ASEAN — Indonesia — was heretofore relatively neutral between China and the U.S. and preoccupied with domestic issues. But it has finally stirred. It has invited coast guard officials from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam to discuss “how to respond in the field when we face the same disturbance”. China’s support of its fishers fishing illegally in Indonesia’s EEZ and its official demands that Indonesia cease drilling in its own EEZ and accompanying harassment has pushed it to act.
As Vice Admiral Aan Kurina, the head of Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency said, “Indonesia scored a point “against China in that “their vessels did not disturb us physically and the drilling was completed”. This Indonesian initiative indicates both the seriousness of the situation and its cautiousness in confronting either one of the primary protagonists — China and the U.S. But if successful, it could gradually grow into more robust ASEAN responses to the growing danger of a US-China conflict in the region. Indeed although this particular effort is aimed at curbing China’s bullying, future such efforts could target any country that adds to the tension in the region — including the U.S and its allies.
Clever, agile and risk taking ASEAN members can gain from the present situation. Both China and the U.S. will be stepping up their efforts to win the hearts and minds of more Southeast Asian countries. They may be able to strike beneficial bargains.
In order to win over those that are sitting on the fence, China may temporarily back off the aggressive prosecution of its claims to resources in their claimed waters. As if on cue, on 18 January, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised the Philippines additional aid and that China “will not use its strength to bully smaller countries”.
China may also try to reach pragmatic provisional arrangements with its rival claimants in the South China Sea that implicitly recognize their claims. It may even compromise on some of the critical provisions in the draft Code of Conduct with ASEAN and agree to ambiguous language on its geographic coverage, legal status and enforcement or dispute settlement mechanisms. By facilitating compromise on these issues ASEAN or a core thereof could enhance its agency and ‘centrality’. Some Southeast Asian states may similarly take advantage of the U.S. need for supporters. They can press for better bargains.
But these states must be very careful. To get what they want they may have to give a pound of foreign policy flesh. In the end they may have less foreign policy independence if they are politically and militarily ‘hooked’ by one or the other. This is a choice they will have to weigh and manage adroitly.
This all makes for fascinating diplomatic theater with real world implications. Indeed, the world is watching.
Portions of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3164192/south-china-sea-time-adjustments-us-china-and-asean-fine-tune-their and Asia Times.