China’s Missteps in Southeast Asia: Less Charm, More Offensive

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 25

At the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi―fuming at the temerity of 12 countries who had raised the contentious South China Sea dispute―stared at his Singaporean counterpart and thundered “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” Yang’s less than subtle message was emblematic of China’s diplomatic missteps in Southeast Asia over the past year, which have sent ripples of concern across the region, undermined Beijing’s “peaceful development” thesis and led to a renewed appreciation of America’s diplomatic role and military presence in Asia.
As tensions in the South China Sea ratcheted up in 2010, the United States looked on with growing concern that its strategic and economic interests―and those of its friends and allies―were being undermined. At the Shangri La Dialogue in June, for instance, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates identified the South China Sea as an “area of growing concern for the United States” (See “Shangri-La Dialogue Highlights Tensions in Sino-U.S. Relations,” China Brief, June 24). Yet it was not until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue at the ARF a month later that Asia’s long-running sovereignty dispute hit world headlines. Clinton reiterated that freedom of navigation was a vital U.S. interest and that it opposed the use of force to resolve the problem. In a departure from past policy, Clinton suggested that the United States stood ready to facilitate talks on implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), the agreement drawn up by ASEAN in China in 2002 to manage the dispute but which the two sides have singularly failed to implement.

Clinton’s comments at the ARF were provoked in part by reference to the South China Sea as a “core interest” by Chinese officials, even though the exact context of their comments remains unclear. The issue first surfaced in April, when it was reported that during a visit to Beijing by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Asia Director of the National Security Council Jeffrey Bader in March, several senior Chinese officials, including Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai and State Councilor Dai Bingguo (President Hu’s point man on foreign affairs), had described the South China Sea a “core interest”―the implication being that China would brook no interference from the United States (New York Times, April 23; Washington Post, July 30). Whether the PRC officials were referring to the South China Sea as a whole―including the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands― or just the Exclusive Economic Zone where China has protested the surveillance activities of the US military is uncertain.

Beijing has never officially described the sea as a “core interest” and government officials claim that Steinberg and Bader “misinterpreted” comments made at the March meeting (Interviews, Beijing, October). Yet according to Clinton, at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in May in Beijing, Dai Bingguo repeated that the South China Sea was Beijing’s “core interest” (Interview with Greg Sheridan of The Australian, U.S. Department of State, November 8). Reference to the South China Sea as a core interest was interpreted in Washington as elevating the problem on a par with Taiwan and thus an issue over which China was prepared to go to war.

The United States was not the only country to push back against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Twelve countries raised the issue at the ARF, including the four ASEAN claimants (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei) and Indonesia which has an overlapping maritime boundary claim with China near the gas-rich Natuna Islands. Southeast Asia’s anxieties were further fueled by the Sino-Japanese standoff in the East China Sea in September when the Japanese Coast Guard detained a Chinese fishing trawler that had rammed one of its vessels near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Even Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the leader of a country that has traditionally downplayed tensions in the South China Sea, described the PRC as “more assertive than ever before” (China Daily, September 29). Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described Clinton’s comments as a “useful reminder” of America’s role in Asia, a role “which China cannot replace … because of America’s security contributions in maintaining the peace in the region” (Straits Times, September 24).

Since the ARF, the United States, ASEAN and China have all moved to tamp down tensions over the South China Sea.

In September, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell denied that Clinton’s comments had been aimed at China or that Washington was “taking sides or stoking tensions” and that the Administration’s goal was to “create a more stable, predictable environment” (AP, September 29). A month later, in recognition of the fact that Clinton’s offer to facilitate talks on implementing the DoC was strongly opposed by China and viewed as unfeasible by ASEAN because Beijing would walk away from the agreement if a third party attempted to mediate, Campbell told journalists in Tokyo that it would be inappropriate for the United States to play a direct role in the talks (Media Roundtable at the U.S. Embassy, Tokyo, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, October 6). Washington has more pressing problems to deal with than the South China Sea, though Honolulu-based U.S. Pacific Command continues to monitor developments with concern.

The ASEAN states have had to strike a careful balance: they do wish to be seen as siding with America on the South China Sea, but nor do they want to be perceived as appeasing China. Thus while the 2nd U.S.-ASEAN Summit in New York on September 24 provided another opportunity to discuss the territorial problem, member states softened the language in the final communiqué. Prior to the meeting, a leaked draft had made explicit mention of the South China Sea and the importance of freedom of navigation and non-use of force (AP, September 19). The final communiqué, however, merely noted the importance of “regional peace and stability, maritime security, freedom of navigation…. and the peaceful settlement of disputes” (White House, Joint Statement of the 2nd US-ASEAN Leaders Meeting, September 24). The White House “Read-out” on the luncheon meeting, however, did make explicit mention of freedom of navigation and the non use of force in the South China Sea (White House, Read-out of President Obama’s Working Luncheon with ASEAN Leaders, September 24).

According to Campbell and Bader, Clinton’s comments in July have served to move China “back to a more collaborative approach” on the South China Sea (AP, September 19). There is some evidence to support this contention. After the ARF, Chinese officials stopped referring to the South China Sea as a core interest in meetings with their American counterparts, though mainland academics continued to muddy the waters by arguing that sovereignty was, by definition, a core interest and that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the atolls in the sea (Author interviews, Beijing, October 2010). In recent months, however, Chinese academics have also gone quiet on the issue.

Senior Chinese officials have also sought to play down the issue on visits to Southeast Asia. At the inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus)―which brought the 10 ASEAN defense ministers and their counterparts from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand together in Hanoi on October 12―Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie reacted rather mildly when eight countries raised the South China Sea dispute, even though prior to the meeting he had insisted it was not an appropriate venue to discuss the problem. During October Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun was dispatched to four Southeast Asian countries on a “listening and reassurance” mission, while in November Vice President Xi Jinping―Hu’s heir apparent―on a trip to Singapore to mark 20 years of formal diplomatic relations stressed that a “prosperous and stable China does not pose a threat to any country,” that Beijing would “continue to undertake its responsibilities for regional peace and development” and in an obvious attempt to counter Yang’s statement at the ARF, that “China sees all countries, big and small, as equals” (Straits Times, November 16).

By raising the South China Sea at the ARF and ADMM-Plus, both ASEAN and the United States hoped that Beijing would be forced to recalibrate its position and adopt a more flexible and accommodating stance. The acid test of this expectation is whether meaningful progress can be achieved over the next 12 months on implementing the DoC. There are cautious grounds for optimism. At the ASEAN-China Summit in October, Premier Wen Jiabao told ASEAN leaders that the PRC was committed to implementing the agreement (Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 30). On December 22-23 the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the DoC will meet in Kunming to discuss implementation guidelines, the results of which will be discussed by an ASEAN-China Senior Officials Meeting early in the New Year. Indonesia took over the rotating ASEAN Chair in December, and Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa has indicated that meaningful progress on the South China Sea problem will be among Jakarta’s “leading priorities” (Straits Times, September 19). Yet acute problems remain in implementing the DoC, including the modalities of the discussions (China objects to ASEAN caucusing on the issue) and the precise definition of “disputed waters.” And although Philippine President Benigno Aquino has called for ASEAN solidarity on the South China Sea, arriving at a consensus will be problematic because membership is made up of claimant and non-claimant states, and some members have close ties to the PRC.  Moreover, even though the DoC contains some potentially useful confidence building measures, given that the problem has become overlain by nascent Sino-US maritime rivalry, it remains doubtful whether its implementation will fundamentally change the dynamics of the dispute.

For its part China has been incensed at what it perceives as U.S. collusion with some Southeast Asian states at the ARF. At the time the meeting took place Vietnam occupied the ASEAN chair, and Beijing suspects Hanoi encouraged the United States and other participants to raise the issue so as to “internationalize” the problem. Stepped-up military cooperation between the United States and Vietnam has also raised Beijing’s ire, including the repair of a U.S. navy supply ship in April, a visit by the hospital ship USNS Mercy in May, and in August a port call to Danang by the destroyer USS John McCain, the transit through Vietnam’s EEZ of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and high level defense talks between the two countries. Vitriolic commentaries in the PRC press have warned Hanoi of the dangers of becoming a “strategic pawn” of the United States (Global Times, July 28).

As a result, Vietnam continues to pursue multiple strategies with China vis-à-vis the South China Sea dispute. First, it holds regular dialogue with the PRC in an attempt to manage tensions but also assuage Chinese concerns. In August, for instance, Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh visited Beijing and reiterated Vietnam’s “3 nos” policy: no foreign alliances, no foreign bases and no relationship with another country to be directed at a third (VNA, August 26). Second, Hanoi continues to coax ASEAN to implement the DoC and move forward with a formal Code of Conduct. Third, Vietnam highlights the issue at international forums, including a second major conference on the South China Sea in Ho Chi Minh City in November. Fourth, the government has accelerated the modernization of the armed forces, particularly the navy and air force, including an order for 12 SU-30 MKK fighters and six Kilo-class submarines from Russia, the first two of which could be delivered in 2014. Fifth, and most controversially, Vietnam seeks to facilitate the military presence of major external powers in Southeast Asia. Thus in October Hanoi and New Delhi agreed to increase the frequency of Indian navy ship visits to Vietnam (PTI, October 13) and, most noteworthy, an announcement by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung that the strategically located former US naval base at Cam Ranh Bay would be opened to foreign navies for repair and re-provisioning, including submarines and aircraft carriers (Bangkok Post, October 31). Dung’s announcement thus paves the way for increased US Navy ship visits to Vietnam in the coming years.

After nearly a decade of adroit statecraft, China’s diplomatic posturing has substantially drained the reservoir of goodwill it had built up in Southeast Asia, forced ASEAN governments to question anew Beijing’s peaceful rise, and pushed regional governments closer to the US. Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has spoken of 2010 as marking the beginning of a “decades-long tussle between the US and China for pre-eminence in the Pacific” (Straits Times, October 2). Events this year suggest that tussle will increasingly be played out in Southeast Asia.