China’s policy on the South China Sea dispute: Divide and Conquer ASEAN

22/06/2015


After a decade of silence, the South China Sea (SCS) conflict has once again arisen to the top of the East Asian security debate. This conflict is in many ways a litmus test of China’s relations with ASEAN and its member states. ASEAN has become openly divided on how the SCS should be handled (multilaterally or bilaterally); this could undermine the viability of successful pursuit of constructive engagement.
Now, ASEAN has a China problem. Ask the ten members about China, and you’ll get a kaleidoscope of opinions about what that country represents. Some ASEAN countries are very much pro-China: their own economic development is tied closely to Beijing’s, and they are comfortable with the political implications of their China connections. Others are cooler on relations with Beijing: they balance a wariness of Chinese influence with the obvious benefits of a healthy trading relationship. And finally, there are those that feel threatened by China and regard themselves as targets (or at least potential targets) of Chinese assertiveness.
Unity on the question of how to handle China has therefore eluded ASEAN. And given the association’s nature, this is unsurprising: neutrality and non-intervention, not unity and collectivism, are ASEAN’s most cherished principles.
There’s no doubt that ASEAN is split on the issue of China and territorial disputes. What is less clear is whether ASEAN’s disunity is simply playing into China’s hands, allowing it to deal with each country individually, or whether Beijing is actively driving a wedge between ASEAN members that oppose China and those that are more sympathetic to the Chinese position.
“Beijing has consistently pursued a strategy to prevent the South China Sea issue [becoming] one between China and ASEAN,” suggests Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University. “It has argued that the any conflict is bilateral. To this end, Beijing has succeeded by using a few Southeast Asian countries to prevent the emergence of a united ASEAN agenda or strategy.” Zhang points to China’s economic leverage over Cambodia and Thailand in particular, and also to the fact that these two countries (and several others within ASEAN) have no direct stake in the South China Sea disputes. Their membership of ASEAN is their only real link to these affairs.
The spotlight has fallen on Cambodia especially: the country is China’s closest regional ally and a major beneficiary of economic aid from Beijing. In 2012, ASEAN’s summit of foreign ministers in Cambodia, attended by the foreign ministers of the 10-member bloc in 2012, was to have ended with an endorsement of its position on a range of regional issues, most of all on the highly-charged issue of conflicting claims with China to territory in the South China Sea, which has become Asia’s biggest potential military flashpoint.
Yet when it came to it there was no final communiqué – for the first time in Asean’s 45-year history. As chair of the summit, Cambodia refused to allow the Philippines, supported by Vietnam, to include in a communiqué language that referred to a recent stand-off between its naval vessels and Chinese government ships over the Scarborough Shoal, a reef claimed by both countries. Cambodia insisted that such disputes were bilateral, which is Chinese policy on the issue.
Irrespective of the extent of Beijing’s control over Cambodia, its ability to split ASEAN – whether intentional or coincidental – is undeniable. However, China is also one of the few issues with the power to unite ASEAN.
Since at least August last year, China has been officially advocating what officials have called a “dual track approach” with respect to the South China Sea issue. Beijing continues to use this approach in discussions today. While the approach itself could be dismissed as old wine in new bottles by close observers, it nonetheless deserves critical examination because it may be quite deceiving to the untrained eye.
The dual track, in Beijing’s eyes, envisages: 1) the handling of bilateral disputes by the countries directly concerned through negotiations; 2) the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea through joint efforts of China and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
A “dual track approach” works to China’s advantage because it seeks to divide both ASEAN and other potential forces that could counter Beijing’s behavior as well as the very aspects of the South China Sea issue as well. The dual track approach facilitates China’s preference for a divided ASEAN on the South China Sea issue. Note that ASEAN only appears in the second track – “the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea” – but has no role when it comes to the “handling of bilateral disputes,” which is restricted only to the four ASEAN claimant states. Here, China is essentially repeating its long-held view that disputes should be resolved bilaterally between it and claimant states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – rather than with ASEAN as a whole or the interference of other external parties. This works to its advantage because it is easier for Beijing to take on individual ASEAN countries than the organization collectively or even a sub-group of countries, particularly given the vast asymmetries in capabilities in China’s favor.
By advocating two separate tracks on maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and the handling of bilateral disputes, China is able to divide aspects of the issue as well. Beijing’s “incremental assertiveness” in the South China Sea, including the seizure of individual features and massive land reclamation activities, can be seen as efforts to enforce its “nine-dash line” claim relative to other claimants, which is no business of ASEAN’s.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that the member states which feel most insecure about China – the Philippines and Vietnam – had hoped for at least some ASEAN solidarity in managing their territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. They didn’t get it.
Beijing is obviously aware that its strategy, in the short term at least, incurs huge diplomatic costs. To offset these costs, China has tried to gain support from some South-East Asian nations so that the other claimants are not able to forge a regional alliance on this issue to isolate China./.
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All comments [ 12 ]


LawrenceSamuels 22/6/15 20:55

Beijing has consistently pursued a strategy to prevent the South China Sea issue becoming one between China and ASEAN.

MaskOf Zero 22/6/15 20:56

By advocating two separate tracks on maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and the handling of bilateral disputes, China is able to divide aspects of the issue as well.

yobro yobro 22/6/15 22:38

ASEAN balances a wariness of Chinese influence with the obvious benefits of a healthy trading relationship.

Deck Hero14 22/6/15 22:40

So wicked, China!

Gentle Moon 22/6/15 22:42

Vietnam needs to be aware of that scheme, and we have issued measures to deal with that to protect our interests.

John Smith 22/6/15 22:45

Beijing continues to use this approach in discussions today.

Love Peace 22/6/15 22:47

This could undermine the viability of successful pursuit of constructive engagement. We must seek an united consensus in ASEAN for the South China Sea issue.

Jane smartnic 22/6/15 22:49

I have not believed Cambodia, Laos are ok, they know and understand us, but Cambodia and Khmer people, they are so extreme!

Only Solidar 22/6/15 22:51

China has been officially advocating what officials have called a “dual track approach” with respect to the South China Sea issue.

Pack Cassiopian 22/6/15 22:53

ASEAN needs to reach a consensus in the South China Sea issue, they have to resolve this peacefully.

Elizabeth Green 25/6/15 06:32

some countries disagree with china's claim and illegal activities in the East Sea, but haven't expressed their stance due to economic interest with china

Thompson Catherine 25/6/15 06:37

it's so utilitarian, that is why the unity of ASEAN in the East Sea difficully become true

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