By Joseph Young
This week an international tribunal in The Hague made a momentous decision in the Philippines’ case against Chinese land reclamation. Rejecting China’s historical claims to the South China Sea and ruling that its actions have violated the Philippines’ sovereignty, the court has sent a strong message. While The Hague conceded that it has no power to make China comply with the ruling, the outcome of the case damages the credibility of Chinese claims in the international community.
The court’s decision provides a unique opportunity for consensus building among ASEAN nations and can lead to strong enough regional pressure to push the Chinese to the negotiation table. The current status quo is one of inaction, and one that is in the favor of the Chinese because land reclamation, regardless of its legal status, is permanent. The more military infrastructure they develop, the greater military influence they gain, leading to de facto control of the region. ASEAN nations and the United States need to use this opportunity to build consensus in the international community, and continue to pressure China diplomatically.
Chinese action in the last decade has ranged everywhere from ramming and detaining foreign fishermen and vessels to building military infrastructure on disputed islands. Arguing that the South China Sea is akin to a Chinese “lake,” the Chinese have denied any form of international arbitration and emphasized the use of bilateral negotiation to resolve disputes, where they can leverage their vast economic and military power to their diplomatic advantage. While many nations located in the South China Sea, as well as Pacific powers such as the U.S., have expressed concern over China’s overt behavior, the Chinese government continues to build harbors and airstrips, deploy missiles on disputed territory, and release strong statements against international involvement. Part of this hardline position arises from President Xi Jinping’s willingness to risk international isolation, coupled with a belief that the U.S. is not willing to commit to its maritime allies. The Chinese are trying to take advantage of this perception of a “weaker” U.S. and a “stronger” China by developing their military capabilities to deter U.S. intervention. The Chinese believe that if they are patient enough and raise the costs of engagement high enough, the frustration of the U.S. and other members of the international community will cause them to step back.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations occupies a paradoxical role in the dispute. It is an active regional body, yet its composition renders it unable to resolve the conflict. Of ASEAN’s 10 member states, four of them (the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei) directly conflict with China over the islands and seek to resolve the dispute through regional consensus. The difficulty of collective action was clearly demonstrated several weeks ago, when ASEAN released a joint statement in regard to the South China Sea and then immediately retracted it. Though a follow-up communiqué was promised, no such statement was released, and individual members of ASEAN instead released their own versions of the announcement. This lack of consensus arises from the differing interests of the member states, and specifically the different relationships that each nation has with China. For instance, as Greg Poling, director of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, claims, “China has greater leverage toward Laos and Cambodia than other [members], and in the case of Cambodia [it] is very blatantly more of a pro-Beijing state.” Due to these internal divisions, the Chinese have considerable ability to lobby ASEAN decisions and actions, putting claimant nations in a difficult position since ASEAN action is the only regional recourse they have. Even so, as James H. Nolt, senior fellow at World Policy Institute, argues, “the effect of Chinese aggression will push claimant nations to cooperate.” The more China begins to increase its claims and deployments, the more likely it is for regional and pacific powers to form a coalition to stop this behavior.
The court’s decision provides a unique opportunity for consensus building among ASEAN nations. Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, claims that the court’s ruling may “give the Philippines and Vietnam and Indonesia some greater leverage [… and possibly] get consensus in ASEAN.” Many members within ASEAN still have an incentive to preserve their relationship with Beijing, he says, but with the Court’s decision as a baseline there is a possibility for pro-Beijing states to balance the economic incentives of good relations with China and the security benefits of promoting international law. At next month’s ASEAN ministerial meeting, other world powers may be able to pressure nations such as Laos and Cambodia to agree to a statement.
Following the court’s decision, Chinese rhetoric and action may begin to intensify. In anticipation of a ruling against their claims, Chinese officials made it clear that the country would not abide and increased military exercises in the South China Sea. Predictions of China’s response have ranged from more forceful statements to declaring an Aerial Defense Identification Zone, which would require any foreign aircraft to check in with Chinese authorities, to militarizing the highly contested Scarborough Shoal.
In the face of this escalation, claimant nations need to match to Chinese actions and be willing to play China’s long game. Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS, draws an example from the prime minster of Japan, Shinzo Abe. Xi Jinping called for Abe to recognize the contested Senkaku/Diayuu islands as “disputed territories” as a precondition for a summit. In response, Xi Jinping deployed naval vessels marked as Chinese Coast Guard into the disputed water. Green asserts that Abe “matched toe to toe with [the Chinese] navy and matched every naval move with their own coast guard, […] Abe did not panic, [and …] visited every ASEAN country. He had successful summits with the U.S., India and Russia, and […] with all that in play, the U.S. backing him and with India backing and ASEAN […] in their own way backing him. Xi Jinping had no place to go and he compromised.” As a result, a summit was held between Japan and China last year, and Xi Jinping dropped his demand. This scenario demonstrates that Chinese escalation can be used to back the country into a corner if nations do not panic and raise international attention.
Assuming that the Chinese are rational actors, no matter how close to the brink they are willing to go, they are still unlikely to cross the threshold into direct conflict. Poling makes the point that “we need to keep in mind that there is no short-term solution. This is a 10 or 15-year game. If the U.S. hopes to win, we need to sustain that pressure for 10-15 years, not get frustrated over this year being worse than last year.” The U.S.—especially the next administration—must realize that this issue will not go away any time soon, and that the only way to bring China to the negotiating table is to frustrate the Chinese into a stalemate.
To reach a resolution, claimant nations and the U.S. should frame the dispute as China versus the rules and will of the international community. If interested parties refuse to concede to coercive rhetoric and action while sustaining international pressure over the long term, the Chinese will have to reconsider their tactics.
Joseph Young is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.
[Photo Courtesy of Times Asi ]