South China Sea – The centre of a new sphere of power
The calm before the new storm? The waters in the South China Sea seem to have calmed down after almost two years characterized by fierce verbal sparring and strong official statements. The four ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) claimants—namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam— plus China seem currently to show a real willingness to finalize a peaceful solution for the contested waters. If some observers talked about the victory of Chinese diplomacy after the meetings and summits at bilateral and multilateral level held between September and October in the South East Asia region, thus hinting at a major setback for the Obama administration, the main question is still awaiting an answer: do the stakeholders really want to finalize a Code of Conduct (COC) to resolve the issue as they officially claim?
A query than can not be uncoupled from a number of unsolved doubts: is it possible that different and multilateral interests are pushing the claimants and the superpowers involved to exploit a situation of ambiguity and uncertainty which might bring more benefits than would a resolution? Or even worse, is someone pushing for a regional conflict? Do all the stakeholders involved in the South China Sea issue really want the situation to evolve through changes, albeit slow and respectful of all parties involved, or is the final aim “to change everything to make sure that nothing changes?”, quoting ‘The Leopard’, the Italian novel written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
A first and possible answer to the first question is “yes”. The final aim of all the ASEAN countries involved in the maritime dispute is indeed to finalize a Code of Conduct. Even China, whose officials have been insisting on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) first, see the COC as the final aim, but “gradually”, as underlined by Chinese officials after a meeting with ASEAN counterparts held in Suzhou last September. “If China acts strategically on the basis of its national interests, then it will seek to resolve its maritime boundary disputes,” Stein Tønnesson stated in a research paper. (‘Steps Forward for China to Resolve its Disputes in the South China Sea‘)
Although this is the declared goal set by government officials, however, the ASEAN’s difficulties in maintaining unity and one voice on the issue since the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) held in Phnom Penh in July 2012–with the grouping failing to agree on a joint communique for the first time in 45 years due to dissension on the South China Sea—have only exacerbated the feeling of distrust and pessimism. One could thus be entitled to believe that the desire to get to the finalization of a COC does not apply with equal strength to the various governments involved.
A strength that seems to be more and more channeled by the political and economic power of the strongest assertive claimant in the region: the People’s Republic of China. In fact, looking at the South China Sea issue focusing on the three months that preceded the ASEAN and East Asian Summits held in Brunei in October, China has been able to change its approach towards the four ASEAN claimants and the Association itself through a sharp dialogue at bilateral and multilateral level, reinforced also by political and economic agreements with Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and with two major players in the region: Indonesia and Thailand. In Jakarta, Chinese officials finalized economic agreements worthing $28 billion, while in Thailand–ASEAN’s country coordinator for dialogue relations with China—Chinese direct investments are second only to Japan.
On the East side, Vietnam, the strongest opponent to the Chinese assertiveness together with the Philippines, seems to have reinvigorated the link with its old enemy and friend at the border. The “breakthrough in bilateral cooperation” was obtained during the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Hanoi, invited by his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung in mid October. China and Vietnam have pledged to set up in parallel three joint work groups to advance maritime, onshore and financial cooperation.
Furthermore Beijing has been able to appease also its south and west sea front. At the end of October the People’s Liberation Army and the Malaysian military decided to hold their first-ever joint exercises next year, after that in August Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein dismissed concerns about Chinese patrols off its coast, thus splitting with other ASEAN claimants. And in Brunei, during Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang’s visit to the country, the two sides decided “to further deepen bilateral relations, and agreed to enhance maritime cooperation to promote joint development.”
At multilateral level it needs to be mention the silent role of the ASEAN Secretary General, Le Luong Minh, who had talks in Beijing in mid October with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, “for outlining the future direction for China-ASEAN relations,” and the change of approach of ASEAN during the Bruneian chairmanship. Its diplomatic effort in easing tensions was in fact in stark contrast with the Cambodian chairmanship. If in July 2012 the ten members were not able to find a common voice on the issue, exactly one year later ASEAN and China agreed to actively work on a COC, thus rebalancing the political role of the Association.
Moreover, this change of course is due also to the difficulty showed by U.S.. American diplomacy on the South China Sea issue has shifted from the assertiveness of the ex Secretary of State H. Clinton in 2010, to the softness of the present Secretary J. Kerry, who in Brunei was engaged in justifying the absence of President Obama more than to work on concrete and persuasive actions with its historic and potential allies in the region. The feeling is that even American officials, at the moment, do not know how they should concretely handle the South China Sea issue. An uncertainty that cannot counter the palpable assertiveness manifested by Beijing in the last two years, and in front of which the other four ASEAN claimants can do nothing but to find the lesser evil.
Hence the lesser evil can be summarized by the words pronounced by Chinese president in Jakarta ahead of the summit in Brunei: “China will firmly uphold regional peace and stability, and help cement the foundation for a win-win situation in the Asia-Pacific,” Xi-Jinping stated in his first visit to South East Asia region since taking power. Chinese diplomacy has been able to reinforce its sphere of influence around the South China Sea which earlier in the year seemed in danger of falling apart. After the Filipino unilateral decision to call for an international arbitration tribunal under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), President Benigno Aquino is now seeking to re-engage China, with the aim to rebalance his China position.
In such animated geopolitical context China–through artful orchestrating of bilateral and multilateral contacts and agreements, coupled with the an increasing military presence in the South China Sea–has been able to exploit the absence of progress on the COC to define its regional and international role, with the declared aim to enhance cooperation within the region. The four ASEAN claimants seem to be obliged to follow the Chinese path, like ships scrambling for safe haven against the upcoming storm.
Photo credit: Wikipedia – Source: Perry-Castañeda Library