Is the World a match for China?

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Pichamon Yeophantong

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.

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