Is the World a match for China?
Recent US affirmation of its "national interest" in maintaining the "freedom of navigation" and "respect for international law" in the disputed South China Sea has brought a new challenge to China. It also widened the margin of maneuver vis-à-vis China for the Association of South East Asian Nations.
Predictably, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded with an angry outburst, labeling US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement as a diplomatic "attack on China." Beijing also tried to spin the ASEAN reaction in a positive way - indicating the contours of the new diplomatic struggle it triggered.
Amidst the rhetoric, media of each country portrayed ASEAN member responses as favourable to their side: The US news media lost no time in affirming how the US potential role as "honest broker" to mediate the dispute was well received by ASEAN members. The Chinese media reported how Asian delegates had "congratulated" Yang after the meeting, praising China's stance. Despite such contradictory references to the attitudes of ASEAN members, noticeably missing was an actual account of how the Southeast Asian states themselves understand the issue.
After months of high-level tension and verbal jousting between China and the United States, Southeast Asia now witnesses a new phase in international resource politics. From the Mekong River's critical water levels to management of regional fisheries in the South China Sea and the Tonkin Gulf, resource issues are crucial to regional stability. One only needs to look to the recent spat between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to see how resource politics can quickly escalate into diplomatic confrontation.
Sensitive disputes surrounding the South China Sea - specifically in relation to the Spratly and Paracel islands - collectively constitute another major challenge for the region. Three main factors are responsible for rising tensions in the area: increasing friction over access to fishing and potential energy resources as a result of overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), rapid modernisation of the PLA Navy, and most importantly, the equivocal nature of Chinese claims and actions.
China, a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, often sends mixed signals to its neighbours. That China refused to submit a joint claim with Vietnam and Malaysia to the UN commission on extended continental shelves, but later filed an objection, attached with the notorious nine-dash line map claiming most of the sea, is an example of Chinese unpredictability.Contrary to polarised views that see Southeast Asia as either on the US bandwagon to balance against a rising China or engaging the latter to constrain the former, Southeast Asian responses to China's erratic
more behaviour nuanced.
Having close historical ties to both China and the US, ASEAN members frequently find themselves at the receiving end of Chinese and American actions, for better or worse. As a result, they have developed a keen sense of pragmatism, granting them flexibility in maneuvering between these two major powers. Maintaining lowkey diplomacy, whenever possible, is vital.
For members like Brunei, Thailand and Singapore, only indirectly involved in the disputes over the various atolls, a stance of neutrality prevails. In such cases, peaceful dialogue and negotiations, coupled with references to legal agreements and international law, are called upon as means to resolve the issue. Bangkok, for instance, has clarified Thailand's position as supporting the development of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea into a regional code of conduct, notably as a means to reassure Beijing. This suggests that despite China's growing assertiveness and the dubious nature of its claims, there remains a willingness to engage with it constructively, to the extent of accommodation.