Thu, Jul 21, 2016 - Page 8 News List

A new playbook for China, ASEAN

By Chin Tong Liew (劉鎮東) Wing Thye Woo (胡永泰)

The ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea is a watershed moment for international law and an unmistakable warning to Beijing about its strategic assertiveness in Southeast Asia. China says that it does not recognize the ruling, but that does not mean it is undisturbed by it.

The question is how China will respond. Will it change its often aggressive behavior in the region, or will it continue to view the South China Sea mainly in terms of US-China competition? If China assumes that a war-weary and risk-averse US will avoid conflict, it could simply assert its South China Sea claims by force.

However, belligerence could backfire in several ways.

First, it would force ASEAN members to choose between China and the US, a decision that all of them would prefer to avoid. Whereas ASEAN members — particularly the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia — generally have deep military ties with the US, they also value their economic ties with China. The reality is that ASEAN states could choose to become independent players, rather than pawns in the US-China competition, implying that it is in China’s interest to maintain ambiguity in US-ASEAN relations.

Second, by militarizing outcroppings and artificial islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is unwittingly strengthening ultranationalist groups in ASEAN states. This development forces moderate leaders in these countries to adopt a tougher stance toward China to pre-empt attacks from the ultraright and assuage their generals. A case in point is Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s recent visit to the Natuna Islands on a warship, a show of force in response to incursions there by Chinese fishermen and navy vessels.

China must know that the material advantages from closer ASEAN-China economic relations will not be enough to guarantee smooth diplomatic relations. Most ASEAN member states are middle-income countries with educated elites who hold diverse views and even extremely poor and politically illiberal Myanmar has reduced its dependence on China in response to active wooing by the US.

China should rethink its insistence that negotiations over its territorial claims could be conducted only with individual ASEAN states, and not with ASEAN as a bloc — a stance that creates the impression that China is committed to bringing about the group’s breakup. However, China should not encourage ASEAN’s demise, because that would drive several now-neutral ASEAN states further toward the US. Moreover, because ASEAN must represent 10 countries with one voice, and must reach a consensus before it speaks, China has little reason to fear that a common ASEAN negotiating position would be totally unacceptable — particularly given recent history.

For example, a 2012 meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers failed to produce a joint statement, because Cambodia, a Chinese ally, would not agree to mentioning the South China Sea. In a meeting of the same group in Kunming, China, last month, ASEAN had to withdraw a joint statement critical of China’s actions in the South China Sea when Beijing, again, pressured Cambodia, as well as Laos, to object.

What this shows is that, in dealing with ASEAN, China gets to negotiate twice — first, through its closest allies within ASEAN in the formulation of common ASEAN positions, and then directly with an ASEAN team that could include one of its allies. Certain ASEAN countries clearly value their relationships with China more than their relationships with other group members; so, unless China has already ruled out any negotiation on the South China Sea, it should not rule out meeting ASEAN as a bloc.

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