Duterte’s genial tone on the South China Sea is just one of many signs of warmer Sino-Asean ties
Zhou Bo says there has never been Asean solidarity against China on maritime disputes, and the only threat to the current atmosphere of bonhomie could be US actions
Rodrigo Duterte is a godsend to China. The Philippine president’s description of the international tribunal’s verdict on maritime features in the South China Sea as “a piece of paper with four corners” could not sound more similar to former Chinese state councillor Dai Bingguo’s (戴秉國) early description of the verdict, as “a piece of waste paper”.
For his first official visit abroad, Duterte chose Beijing, and reportedly harvested not only contracts worth US$9 billion in soft loans and US$15 billion in economic deals, but also an agreement from China to allow Filipinos to fish again near Huangyan Island, or Scarborough Shoal. What else can he achieve?
In a way, a man like Duterte was bound to emerge. His predecessor, Benigno Aquino, drove the Sino-Philippine relationship into a dead end. So, all Duterte needs to do is walk in the opposite direction.
Similar things are happening with some other claimants from Asean. Vietnam allowed three Chinese warships to visit Cam Ranh Bay in October. During his visit to Beijing in early November, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak described the South China Sea issue as an issue among friends.
If that sounds diplomatic, his announcement that Malaysia would buy China-built littoral mission ships certainly speaks volumes about what Malaysia really thinks of China. No country would buy weapons from a potential enemy and, likewise, no country would sell weapons to a potential enemy.
Apparently, neither Malaysia nor China believes a military conflict between them is possible.
That obliges sovereign states directly concerned, that is, claimants, to resolve the South China Sea dispute through friendly consultations and negotiations. For China, Aquino’s sudden and unilateral initiation of arbitration in 2013 was a clear breach of the China-Asean declaration.
China and countries in Southeast Asia are more than close neighbours. Today, China is Asean’s largest trading partner and the 10-nation regional bloc is China’s third-largest trading partner. Such ties, along with political, cultural and even military connections, are too important to be hijacked by any territorial disputes between China and four other claimants.
In fact most, if not all, Asean countries have territorial disputes of one kind or another with their neighbours. The Philippines has resolved the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone boundary in the Mindanao and Celebes seas with Indonesia following 20 years of negotiations. But it still has disputes with China, Malaysia and Vietnam. In the Asean Charter, a whole chapter is dedicated to settlement of disputes among member states.
There has never been Asean solidarity against China. The only thing that can split China and Asean is a big “if” – that is, if the relationship between China and the US turns irreversibly hostile and Asean has to choose sides.
When American ships and aircraft conduct sailings and overflights in the South China Sea in the name of freedom of navigation, it also challenges the rights and interests of other littoral states. As a matter of policy, both Vietnam and Malaysia, like China, oppose foreign military activities in their exclusive economic zones.
So what will the South China Sea look like in the near future? The situation will most probably remain calm. Rather as if nothing has happened, neither China nor Asean will mention the arbitral verdict. Both have pledged to speed up negotiations on the code of conduct in the South China Sea which will be a follow-up to, and see further progress on, the joint declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. They have agreed to adopt a host of operational and communication procedures to avoid unplanned encounters by ships and aircraft in the South China Sea. A joint exercise on this is earmarked for next year. China has also expressed its readiness to set up a hotline with Asean.
The only question, however, is how the US Navy might continue its provocative sailings and overflights in the South China Sea under the Donald Trump administration. Making predictions is a dangerous business, but a safe bet is that, even if things continue as before, no littoral state or any of America’s allies will join in, in spite of the lip service from some of them; and Chinese naval ships and aircraft will definitely follow.
The USS Decatur’s sailing into waters around the Xisha, or Paracel, Islands on October 21 looks like a frustrated US eager to make a comeback amid China and the Philippines’ recent rapprochement and the obvious decline in the US-Filipino relationship. In that case, it would be very easy for China to point out who the real troublemaker is in the South China Sea.
Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with the Centre of China-American Defence Relations at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science