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  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 9:42am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Sino-US struggle for pre-eminence overshadows South China Sea disputes

Mark Valencia says on top of the disunity within Asean, the Sino-US struggle for pre-eminence in Southeast Asia further dims hopes for any progress on a South China Sea code of conduct

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 3:32am

In much of Southeast Asia, a reference to a shadow play in the context of politics means the "behind the scenes" actors and plot. This double meaning aptly applies to the current situation in the South China Sea. Indeed, the US and China are the raksasa (monsters that can be good or evil) and their struggle for pre-eminence in Southeast Asia is the backdrop to the more obvious political manoeuvring by and within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Although many observers know this "truth", in the run-up to the Asean Regional Forum scheduled for this weekend in Myanmar, hope for an interim modus operandi in the South China Sea is again on the rise.

But hopes for Asean unity on such issues - let alone agreement and compliance by China - are misplaced. The Asean claimants - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - cannot even settle their own disputes, some of which involve both conflicting sovereignty and maritime jurisdictional claims like that between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah. These differences are every bit as serious as the Vietnam-China sovereignty and jurisdictional disputes centred on the Paracels. They just haven't been in the spotlight.

Although Indonesia has taken a lead role in trying to mediate between China and Asean, it is now saddled with the uncertain aftermath of a bitterly contested presidential election. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's Herculean efforts to broker a compromise have not been successful - in part because China does not perceive Indonesia as neutral. The two may have overlapping maritime claims east of the Natunas and Indonesia has publicly opposed China's nine-dash line claim. It is not even clear that Natalegawa will continue as foreign minister.

Thailand is supposed to be the Asean co-ordinator for Asean-China relations but it has been crippled by a coup and the uncertainty surrounding its domestic political structure.

Meanwhile, the US is trying to "ride to the rescue on its white horse". Michael Fuchs, US deputy assistant secretary of state for strategy and multilateral affairs, has proposed a freeze on "activities which escalate tension". This appears to be an attempt to get Asean and China to define what is meant by their call for "self-restraint" in the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The US is expected to push the idea at the Asean Regional Forum.

Fuchs said that "alterations that fundamentally change the nature or capabilities of the present could fall under the freeze, whereas routine maintenance operations would be permissible". He proposed ceasing establishment of new outposts and any construction that would fundamentally change existing outposts. Fuchs also suggested that "one claimant should not stop another from continuing long-standing economic activities in disputed areas". Of course this would introduce a whole new set of terms to be debated and interpreted. But that is just a superficial problem.

That this proposal came from an outside power must be anathema to China. Not surprisingly, China rejected the idea outright not only because it views the US as a non-neutral interloper but also because it wants to negotiate such issues bilaterally with the other claimants, as it believes was agreed in the declaration on the code of conduct.

Many Western analysts think that China is "playing games", and that its intent is to rule the region, if not eventually the world. Many Chinese analysts see it the other way around - that it is the US that is "playing games" and is determined to maintain its dominance in the region and the world. To them its "pivot to Asia" is sufficient evidence.

Neither one "gets it" or acts like it "gets it". China seems not to notice or care that it is scaring much of Asia right into the arms of the US. And the US, despite its denial that it is trying to "contain" China, continues in China's eyes to act as if it is - including interfering in Asean-China affairs. Stability and safety of sea lanes in the South China Sea are a high priority for the US. But its political manoeuvrings are beginning to look like another foreign policy disaster in the making.

The gratuitous advice and warnings to China from the US and its allies Australia and Japan do not help advance Asean-China negotiations. In fact, they may be having the opposite effect.

As Ralph Cossa of Pacific Forum says, there "is not a snowball's chance in hell of China accepting the US freeze proposal". This is not because it is a bad idea but because it comes from and is being pushed by the US - apparently without a full understanding of the situation and the political context.

The real "plot" and the questions pertaining to it were articulated by former US national security adviser Stephen Hadley in a speech on June 21 at the World Peace Forum in Beijing. He said he hoped that the US would accept an increasingly powerful China playing an enhanced role on the world stage - perhaps ultimately a role on a par with that played by the US. But the US has shown no evidence that it is prepared to accept such a Chinese role - unless of course China "plays by the rules". In other words, according to the US, China can play a major role in regional politics as long as it is within the international systems and rules established and dominated by the US and its allies. This is unlikely to be acceptable to China.

Attempts to "blame and shame" it into doing so will only increase tension - perhaps beyond a tipping point.

The US needs to get out ahead of this dialectic, think deeply and decide what is realistically possible and how to get there. Once a decision is made, it needs to proceed collectively and stop sending mixed signals. Trying to dominate and manipulate the South China Sea issues is just rubbing salt in an open wound.

Perhaps that is its intent. Frankly it is hard to tell anymore. In particular it's hard to reconcile US and Chinese rhetoric with their actions. Right now it seems likely this shadow play will end in tragedy.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Hainan


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This article is now closed to comments

I Gandhi
US involvement in disputes always have a way of becoming disasters for the countries involved. Ukraine is a good example. Just 6 months ago it was peaceful and then there is a coup against the pro-Russian government and the result is a civil war and tragedies like MH17. The US and her allies launched invasions and wars against countries like Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq and the result is these countries are destroyed and there is no peace or security let alone democracy. If the US were to involve itself in the disputes in the South China Sea, the current tensions will probably end in wars. Perhaps, US involvement in the territorial dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah will also end in a war. Why can't the US stop meddling in disputes and adding fuel to fire? Haven't the US learned from the lessons of 911?
"Stephen Hadley in a speech ........... hoped that the US would accept an increasingly powerful China playing an enhanced role on the world stage - perhaps ultimately a role on a par with that played by the US."
Good suggestion - let Asia be governed by Asians.
IMO, the rise of China economically and militarily is inevitable, eventually over taking US not just in PPP terms but in nominal terms.. The question is how US will engage with China so the result is mutually beneficial to both.
"staunch allies of ..... India and Pakistan"????
"Japan firmly- aligned with South Korea" ????
Not sure if you know what is going on in the world today
Frankly, China rarely makes the evening news here in the U.S. Yes, people here have opinions about China that are mostly negative. But the Chinese government doesn't seem to be concerned about that. I am. The main concern that I have is that it would be fairly easy to substitute another country as a source of US imports and those of us who are "invested" in the present system would see our skills greatly devalued. Yes, the U.S. Navy isn't happy about China claiming the entire South China Sea. But the general population doesn't know much about that. However, at the corporate level, I know of one plant that relocated to Mexico, not China. Right now security is such a problem in Mexico that they are not a near term competitor. But if things get back to normal in Mexico, then they will be a major competitor because of the close ties between the US and Mexico. The same goes for Brazil which is doing well and has none of the problems that Mexico has. Brazil is mainly a competitor for high value goods in which companies aren't confident that their patents will be respected in China. For example Bombardier of Canada set up in Brazil. GE is said to have closed at least one jet engine plant and for now moved it back to the US. They are in talks with India about moving a plant there. I don't think that the PRC leadership understands how competitive the export market is. They don't have a monopoly just because so many things are made in China.
China can't have it both ways; unless it moderates its hubris and respects international law it is heading towards military conflict with its neighbours and their allies. No country is willing to be subjugated by an intolerant dictatorship bent on seizing all the natural resources of the region and sharing nothing.
How About
Well considered Mark! I might supplement it's well-nigh for the US to step back and consider properly working with a fellow nation instead of its tried-and-failed foreign policies, all humanity need the two of them working for each other.
US is the established, perennial superpower governing Asia Pacific with support from its staunch allies of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, India and Pakistan. China has North Korea and a rapidly-destabilizing relationship with Vietnam and Cambodia. The former has attacked Chinese drilling vessels operating in the disputed area as well as Chinese-Taiwanese factories. Comparing Chinese geopolitical influence with that of the US in the Asia-Pacific theater is akin to comparing the basketball skills of the best players from China with those of the USA. It's no contest now or in the next 25 years.
What's at stake is not dominance or control, as there's no question about US military and political supremacy. The question must focus on the relationship amongst Asian nations - in particular, the pecking order of a rapidly-emerging Chinese economic regional-power with expanding military ambitions verses the status-quo favored by an aging Japan firmly- aligned with South Korea and other emerging South Asian economies. If Chinese ruling-elites have their way, they will unilaterally seize shared airspace and sea-lanes and all vital resources in the region, similar to how they have grab lands and other national assets for their own interests and benefits. As other tyrants have demonstrated through Asian history, the concept of right and wrong is not a consideration.
Funny how you keep making suggestions of what the USA should do, but you are deafeningly silent over Chinese lawlessness, arrogance and aggression. Well, you work in Hainan, 'nuff said.
"it would be fairly easy to substitute another country as a source of US imports"???
Believe me, US would have substituted long time ago if there was an alternative.
" The same goes for Brazil which is doing well " ???? - ****www.economist.com/news/americas/21608643-confidence-and-growth-down-public-spending-up-all-systems-slow?zid=305&ah=417bd5664dc76da5d98af4f7a640fd8a
You should get your facts right first before sighting examples.
You're perfectly right. Morons have no shame about their ignorance.


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