By R. S. Kalha
When China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin confidently asserted shortly before the East Asia Summit at Bali, Indonesia, that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved between the ‘parties concerned’ bilaterally, little did he realise how isolated China had become over this issue. A series of blistering articles emanating from Beijing left no one in doubt that if push came to shove, China would use force to assert its rights in the South China Sea. The butt of Chinese ire seemed to be directed at the Philippines and Vietnam. For the Chinese the ‘fault’ of the Philippines lay in the fact that it had renamed the South China Sea as the West Philippines Sea, called on ASEAN to form a ‘united front’ and sent an official to claim sovereignty over a disputed islet. China threatened that the ‘punishment’ would be ‘strong’ enough to deter other countries from emulating the Philippines example and to ‘discourage’ other countries from ‘dreams to join the United States to contain China’.
Far from achieving its objectives based on threats, the Chinese found to their consternation that the East Asia Summit not only took up the issue of disputes in the South China Sea, despite their objections, but except for Myanmar and Cambodia every other country spoke up on the issue. The unease felt by the Chinese was palpable and it forced the Chinese PM Wen Jiabao to refer to the dispute in a multi-lateral forum. Wen asserted that China goes to great ‘pains’ to ensure that the shipping lanes are safe and free. It is learned that Wen did not reiterate the standard Chinese line that such disputes be settled ‘bilaterally’, although the official Xinhua report said that he ‘re-affirmed’ China’s position.
It is obvious that the Chinese wish to deal bilaterally with the countries of South and East Asia in order to prevent them from ‘ganging-up’ against China. Another worry that the Chinese have is that collectively ASEAN might bring the South China Sea dispute before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and that China may not be able to validate its stated position in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS]. Such an eventuality would be a serious loss face for China.
That Chinese diplomacy has played right into hands of the US is increasingly being recognized. Chinese threats and bluster have antagonized almost all the nations of East and South East Asia. Alarm bells have been ringing in their respective capitals as to what the Chinese intentions are. Not willing to take any chances on Chinese belligerence, almost all have begun to strengthen their defence networks. Vietnam has increased its defence budget by 70 per cent this year and Indonesia announced a 35 per cent increase in its defence outlay for this year. The Republic of Korea [ROK] is building a large naval base on Jeju Island whose location indicates that it will cater for security in the East China Sea rather than against North Korea. The US has agreed to retrofit 145 Taiwanese F-16 fighters. Similarly, Malaysia and Singapore have increased their defence purchases by a whopping 700 per cent and 140 per cent respectively. There is no doubt that the US-Australia decision to enhance their security profile by stationing 2500 Marines at Darwin is due to the same fears. The Australian decision to sell uranium to India can also be seen in the same light.
Even in the case of India, Chinese ham-handedness and belligerence have led to the addition of two new divisions for the Indian army to be deployed along the Sino-Indian border region. The US, Japan and India are to have a trilateral security dialogue by the end of this year followed by joint Indo-Japan naval exercises in 2012. The Chinese decision to staple visas on a piece of paper rather than on regular passports for residents of Jammu and Kashmir, now happily rescinded in some cases, was a needless provocation. So have been the propaganda blasts every time an Indian leader visits Arunachal Pradesh.
The ASEAN decision to pass the grouping’s chairmanship to Myanmar was also very significant. Myanmar had earlier decided to release political prisoners. With Aung San Suu Kyi set to contest parliamentary elections, Hillary Clinton’s announced visit to Myanmar can only cause anguish in Beijing. These important developments indicate that China’s overbearing influence in Myanmar is slipping.
The rapid militarization of South-East and East Asia represents a bonanza of sorts for the US, for most of the military equipment will be of US origin. US military exports are expected to increase exponentially thanks largely to the new found belligerence shown by China. In addition most East and South East Asian countries will now willingly seek the military shield provided by the US. Hand in hand with this, most will probably follow the political lead that the US sets, as it negotiates with the Chinese. In one stroke the Chinese have provided a smooth re-entry to the US into the politics of the region. With its enhanced leverage, the US has already decided to promote the concept of a ‘Trans Pacific Partnership’; a free trade pact of 12 countries that seeks to keep China out, but also to put pressure on it for ‘reforming’ the value of its currency, ending subsidies to state run enterprises and for protection of intellectual property rights in China.
That China is worried at the turn of events is apparent. Its bellicose press is for once not talking the language of threats anymore, although it may return to issuing threats if nothing else works. Recent articles talk of returning to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of China’s ‘peaceful’ rise and the use of the economic leverage as the correct path to follow. Even PM Wen was constrained to assert that disputes should be settled ‘peacefully’. Chinese commentators now assert that China’s economic strength will eventually prevail for the countries of South and East Asia will see that it is more profitable to trade and deal with China than with the US. The US market cannot absorb much more of the exports of South and East Asia with its economy in decline and that eventually these countries would have to look at the Chinese market if they wish to enhance their exports. It is possible that the Chinese assessment may well turn out to be correct.
But for the moment as the Chinese leadership looks around Asia they are clearly worried and diplomatically isolated. The East Asian Summit was a rude awakening, for not one country spoke up on behalf of China, although both Myanmar and Cambodia kept silent on the issue of disputes in the South China Sea. For this Chinese diplomacy has no one else to blame except itself. Perhaps only Pakistan and North Korea remain China’s true and loyal friends in Asia. For a country that aspires to great power status, this must be truly galling and not a very comforting thought for its leadership to be seen in such ‘august’ company!
RS Kalha is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs [India] He can be contacted at [email protected]
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/China%E2%80%99sDiplomaticFolly_RSKalha_231111