If China were an elementary-school student, its report card would read: “Does not play well with others; often tries to bully smaller children.”
Beijing does not like to play in a group where it cannot dictate the rules or the results. That seems to be the message from this week’s ASEAN+ meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where China once again rebuffed calls from the Philippines, Vietnam and others to agree to talks on operating in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying (傅瑩) was quoted as saying on Wednesday that Beijing would discuss a code of conduct in the South China Sea — that would be legally binding and comply with the UN’s Law of the Sea treaty — “when conditions are ripe,” which, reading between the lines, means when pigs can fly.
Beijing prefers one-on-one negotiations with its smaller neighbors where it can throw its weight around in the form of trade and political pressure. It does not want to have to face a united front of other countries, including Taiwan, that claim, either wholly or in part, islands, reefs and waters in the South China Sea.
The nationalistic slant is that China was once the victim of unequal treaties with Western powers and Japan and it will not allow itself to be put in that position again.
The problem is that the longer Beijing maintains that position, the less reason there is for the others to agree to wait and not try to work out something for themselves, particularly as China continues to demonstrate its reluctance to be governed by the rule of law when it comes to commercial disputes, whether on the private or national level.
Taiwanese companies and businesspeople have learned this the hard way, with Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store Co the latest to downsize its investment in a joint venture in China in a bid to end years of disputes with its Chinese partner that saw the general manager of its Beijing operations detained by Chinese security a few years ago.
Think of all the stories recorded in recent years by Victims of Investment in China Association president William Kao (高為邦). Shen Po-sheng (沈柏勝), Chang Chiu-lin (張九麟) and countless other businesspeople have fallen foul of the dirty tricks adopted by their Chinese partners or local and municipal governments. Many sought redress in Chinese courts, with little to show for their belief in law. Others received physical threats to desist in their attempts to seek legal redress or even ended up in prison.
There have been calls in Taiwan for the government to speed up the inking of an investment protection pact with China to provide a legal framework to deal with such disputes, but it is not Taipei that has been dragging its feet in such negotiations, it is Beijing. There is also nothing to guarantee that such a framework would be worth the paper it is printed on.
For a framework to work there has to be a level playing field and that is the one thing that Beijing will never allow; in fact, it appears terrified of the idea.
So whether it is a small(ish) investment by an entrepreneur or a corporation or a nation seeking to explore and exploit the oil, gas, mineral or fishing rights in its own exclusive economic zone, the hard truth is that you cannot expect China to play by the rules.
Beijing is simply trying to drag out the matter while the People’s Liberation Army Navy expands, providing it with a bigger stick to try and enforce its point of view.