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 : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

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