Beijing’s efforts to buy its way into the hearts of smaller nations show no signs of abating, even as China’s economy continues to slow, hampered by its trade dispute with the US and sluggish domestic demand. The billions of dollars that it is pumping into infrastructure projects in other nations as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Belt and Road Initiative are paying off diplomatically, as shown by several news reports this week.
It is not just in the South Pacific, where the Solomon Islands Cabinet is debating whether to switch diplomatic recognition to China, and where, according to an article by Graeme Smith on Thursday in the Lowry Institute’s The Interpreter, “several sources confirmed the regional manager of China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation directly pitched a US$500 million package of loans and grants to the prime minister” for infrastructure projects.
Beijing’s latest efforts concern the perennially contentious South China Sea, where, according to Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi (王毅) on Thursday, tensions have dropped. Wang made the comment in a news conference with his Malaysian counterpart, where they announced that a bilateral consultation mechanism for maritime issues would be set up.
That China is Kuala Lumpur’s biggest trade partner, and in July construction resumed on a Beijing-financed rail project in peninsular Malaysia after China agreed to cut the rail line’s price tag by almost one-third, was of course in the back of everyone’s minds.
Just two days earlier, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that Xi had offered Manila a controlling stake in a gas deposit exploration project near the Reed Bank (Lile Bank, 禮樂灘) — if it set aside the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling that invalidated China’s claims to most of the South China Sea. That ruling upheld the UN Law of the Sea Convention’s maritime zone boundaries and the Philippines’ rights within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and said that China’s construction of islands in the area was unlawful.
Duterte said Xi had told him: “Set aside your claim... If there is something ... we will be gracious enough to give you 60 percent, only 40 percent will be theirs [Chinese energy companies].” While he did not say if he had accepted Xi’s offer, he did say his government was willing to ignore the part of the court’s ruling referring to Manila’s EEZ “to come up with an economic activity.”
So Xi is willing to “be gracious” and let Manila have 60 percent of a project located in what under international law is the Philippines’ EEZ, and Manila appears willing to agree, because, as Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin said on Wednesday, a preliminary agreement on such a deal would avoid stating which country was entitled to the gas, and therefore no legal position would be compromised.
Locsin also said there is a prospect “of a fair, just and objective” code of conduct in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China, because Beijing is “mellowing,” as shown by its willingness to ease up on its demands that there should be no foreign military power presence in the sea and that any oil and gas projects in the region involve it, not “foreign companies.”
Given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) track record, and especially considering what is happening in Hong Kong, it is hard to believe that anyone could say that Beijing is mellowing in any respect, even if the pressure is on to finalize a code of conduct for the region by 2021, as ASEAN and China agreed to in November last year.
What is clear is that Beijing is continuing its divide and conquer strategy of trying to co-opt those who might impede its effort to turn the South China Sea into a private Chinese lake by offering economic inducements to individual nations at the cost of not only their own self-interest and rights, but those of others.
“Fair, just and objective” might be in the diplomatic lexicon, but they are not in the CCP’s.
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