Standing Up to China on the South China Sea

Last weekend’s Association of Southeast Asian States meeting in Naypyidaw in Myanmar has shown once again the impotence of the 47-year-old organization when it comes to defending the interests of concerned members over China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

It will always be thus because the interests of mainland states, particularly small and vulnerable Cambodia and Laos, will always be found to oppose any overt response to China. Myanmar and Thailand likewise have no direct stake in this issue even if they may sometimes like to see pressure on China from others.

If the nations directly concerned – Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei – are to get anywhere at all with China, then they have to form a separate group, one solely devoted to South China Sea issues. They have to stop pretending to themselves that the 10-member ASEAN can deliver anything useful. That doesn’t mean downgrading ASEAN, just focusing it on issues, particularly economic, on which it can actually deliver.

Those five states need to create a formal Maritime Group. If they could come together and formulate a strong common stand, it would be difficult for China to subvert. Indeed, they could claim that they were acting in accordance with China’s demand for bilateral talks. If they could all come to the table agreeing principles that all would follow – such as the 200-mile exclusive economic zone and other rules enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – they could have a stance both multilateral and bilateral in dealings with China.

But do not hold your breath. In Naypyidaw, ASEAN’s ministers sat silent as China’s supremely arrogant foreign minister Wang Yi insulted his Philippine counterpart Albert del Rosario by walking out during his speech. Some ministers seem to behave as though they were already all tributaries of the emperor in Beijing, components of China’s dream of its own Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

Efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to name China as the instigator of recent violent incidents in the South China Sea, and aggressive actions such as bringing a drillship into waters off the Vietnam coast, made no progress. The meeting ended with a bland statement on the sea which meant nothing to anyone.

So China was able to walk away from the meeting unperturbed while ASEAN ministers waffle on about a supposed “code of conduct” for the sea which has been under discussion for years and made no progress because China’s friends will never give it any teeth while the likes of Indonesia use discussion of it as cover for not having a firm policy.

China goes along with discussing the code but meanwhile creating new “facts” by use of gunboat backed fishing boats and drillships. Indonesia seems caught between its own real national interest and the ephemeral notion that as the largest ASEAN country it is somehow its leader and must try to have a consensus, however vapid and counter-productive that might be.

Malaysia and Indonesia also seem to imagine that the only thing that matters is staying in the good books of China in order to attract investment, trade – and payoffs to venal politicians. China has a well-defined and constantly propelled policy of demanding and slowly getting control over more and more of a sea over which it has limited claim either by history, geography, or ethnic and national identity of the populations of the littoral states.

Apart from Vietnam, and belatedly the Philippines, the Southeast Asian littoral states follow policies which entirely fit with Chinese ones. They make some effort to sustain their own claims to islands and seabed which conflict with those of China but make no effort to make common cause with others.

For now, China leaves them alone because that enables divide and rule to be sustained. Of course they realize that in the longer run that will not work and that if China succeeds in gobbling up Vietnamese and Philippines maritime areas they will be next.

But politicians in Jakarta and KL care little about the longer term, and their diplomats love to believe their own meaningless words about peace and regional cooperation.

Meanwhile the US is also left looking in the minority, siding with Vietnam and the Philippines in attempts to criticize China. It may be all very well for Malaysia and Indonesia to sit on the fence in any global contest for influence between China and the US.

But to sit on the fence when their own maritime zones are at stake is nothing but cowardice. US Secretary of State John Kerry should say so directly. After all, those countries quietly look to the US (and Japan) to offset rising Chinese power but do nothing to help themselves. But it is not in Kerry, another waffler, to be so blunt.