Beijing outmanoeuvres US in the South China Sea – at least for now

Mark J. Valencia says Manila’s acceptance of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea shows that the erosion of US influence is real, though probably overstated by hand-wringing Asia policy pundits

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 November, 2017, 10:51am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 November, 2017, 7:33pm

The struggle between China and other claimants for political domination of the South China Sea is over, for now. China has won this round. This is a political setback for the US, which supported the other claimants – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Indeed, what US President Donald Trump said and did not say during his recent Asian trip and statements emanating from recent Asean-hosted summits convinced many observers that China has gained the diplomatic edge over rival claimants and the US.

The “China wins” perception is reflected in many observers’ comments. Ely Ratner, of the US Council on Foreign Relations, says “the South China Sea has fallen victim to a combination of Trump’s narrow focus on North Korea and the administration’s chaotic and snail-paced policymaking process”. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea adds, “Asean countries are willing to move on, failing to make China accountable for the militarisation”.

The US position is that China should fully implement the international arbitration ruling invalidating its claims, adjust them to conform to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and refrain from further “militarising” the features it occupies. The US also demands China respect its “freedom” to undertake intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes in China’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, regardless of whether these probes violate China’s laws. The US also wants China to comply with the “rules-based order” it helped to build and benefits from. None of this has happened, or is likely to.

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Clearly, the other claimants, as well as Asean and the US itself, have suffered setbacks. Under Trump, the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership it initiated, abandoned President Obama’s rebalance to Asia and downplayed China’s actions in the South China Sea because it needs Beijing’s help with North Korea. These changes shape Southeast Asia’s perceptions that they are being given short shrift by a withdrawing US being rapidly replaced by China.

This was a remarkable feat for China, using a deft mix of intimidation, economic incentives (China is now Asean’s largest trading partner) and a mix of patience, perseverance and persuasion tailored to each target. China was able to blunt, then bury, its initially devastating loss to the Philippines. The US had supported the Philippines to file the complaint against China in the first place. China was clearly losing the public diplomacy struggle with the US, being labelled as an international outlaw while the US was the upholder of the existing international order.

Then came the election of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. He chose pragmatism over nationalism in deciding to turn his back on the decision and warm up to China. This windfall for China continued when, as chairman of Asean, Duterte proclaimed that “the South China Sea is better left untouched”. Under his chairmanship, the Asean Summit played down the issues, compared to previous years. Philippines analyst Richard Javad Heydarian observed wryly that “you have an embarrassing situation whereby the Philippines is competing with Cambodia as the friendliest [to China] Asean chairman as far as the South China Sea” is concerned.

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The claimants themselves and much of the rest of Asean seem relieved that tensions are decreasing and they would probably like them to continue to subside. According to Philippines presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, during the Asean Summit, “there was a consensus among all claimant countries and among Southeast Asian countries to ease the tension over the South China Sea”. However, more worrying to the US, many Asean members seem increasingly ambivalent regarding the spectre of China’s world view dominating the region. Perhaps they are accepting reality.

Initially, China’s policy community was crestfallen at the lopsided UN arbitration decision. But China’s leadership picked itself up, rejected the ruling and carried on as if nothing had changed. To the great dismay of the international legal community, China has showed that “realpolitik trumps moralpolitik”, as Stanford scholar Don Emmerson puts it. It is time lawyers recognised the power of international politics before they give more self-serving advice, leading poor countries into losing political situations.

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Pessimism abounds in the US Asian policy community. The political winds are changing and there is cause for alarm for those supporting continued US hegemony in Asia. According to Dan De Luce, Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent, “Beijing’s under-the-radar advances in the South China Sea could be bad news for countries in the region, for US hopes to maintain influence in the Western Pacific, and for the rules based international order...” This is hyperbole, but represents how some in the US foreign policy community think.

Other analysts are trying to remain upbeat. Dan Blumenthal, of the American Enterprise Institute, thinks Trump is working with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in “to develop a long-term approach that contains and rolls back the threat”. They cling to the hope that the off-again, on-again “Quad” – between Australia, Japan, India and the US – will save the century. Indeed, Australian analyst Carl Thayer says there is “a growing convergence of strategic interests in balancing China and maintaining the security of the South China Sea”. Perhaps so – but there are many barriers to overcome before such a hope can be realised.

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