China could edge the US out of the South China Sea by softening its approach to Southeast Asian rivals

  • Mark J. Valencia says Southeast Asian nations are open to better ties with China and do not see US freedom of navigation operations as being in their interests
  • By proposing joint development or mutual use of disputed areas and capitalising on its economic power, China could lure Southeast Asia away from the US
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 3:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 8:35pm

China should compromise with rival claimants in the South China Sea because doing so would be in its long-term national security interest.

China and the US are now locked in a soft and hard power struggle for dominance of the region. China needs to defend itself from the threat of attack from the sea by the US. As Singapore’s late Lee Kuan Yew observed, China’s goal is to push the Americans away from its shores and near seas. More specifically, a RAND report projected that China wants to exclude American influence from China’s first – and second – rings of insecurity, which includes the Greater China region and all of its immediate periphery in the Asia-Pacific.

It can hasten the achievement of this objective by reassuring Southeast Asian countries that it has no intention of being a selfish and coercive hegemonic power. To do so, it must gradually change its approach to rival claimants in the South China Sea.

Although China has managed to build confidence and lower tension regarding its maritime disputes with some claimants like Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, their positions remain far apart and their gap of trust can still be exploited by the US. Compromises – like joint development or implicit acceptance of at least mutual use of disputed areas – combined with China’s burgeoning economic investment, trade and aid – could move much of Southeast Asia away from the US and either into its fold or to neutral ground.

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But if China persists in enforcing its historic nine-dash line claim and preventing other claimants from harvesting resources in areas they claim, then it will continue to provide openings for the US to exploit and alienate the very nations it needs in its camp to protect its maritime flank.

The US has all but abandoned its policy of engagement with China and now wants to contain and constrain it from obtaining regional and maybe even world dominance. To do this, it needs to maintain its soft and hard power edge in the region. It needs to “show the flag” and use gunboat diplomacy to reassure its allies and friends of its presence and resolve. It also needs intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions to maintain its military edge.

To justify its provocative probes, the US claims it is upholding freedom of navigation

To justify its provocative probes, the US claims it is upholding freedom of navigation. However, the US is conflating the age-old and widely supported concept of freedom of commercial navigation with freedom to undertake dangerous deployments of warships and warplanes. But most Southeast Asian countries see through this subterfuge. They increasingly do not perceive these provocations as a priority or even in their interest.

To strengthen the attractiveness of its position, the US claims to be upholding the “international order” that it helped build, leads, greatly benefits from, and of which it is the self-appointed main or even sole arbiter. But hypocritically, the US is rather selective in upholding that order, especially if a principle or rule goes against its national interest. China points this out and explains that it, too, respects international law and order in general, although it occasionally disagrees with a particular aspect.

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When all else fails, the US underscores the dire dangers of not standing up to China. It points out that China is bullying other countries and preventing them from enjoying their own resources, an insidious tactic that encourages nationalist anti-China sentiment in these countries.

For over three decades, Southeast Asia-China relations have been improving, particularly in the economic sphere. Although defence cooperation has been hampered by the South China Sea disputes, joint China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations naval exercises have now begun and may even be regularised.

Indeed, the Southeast Asian states have gradually shifted their view of, and policy towards, China from political distrust and distancing to rapprochement and increased cooperation. China has made great strides with some like Cambodia and Laos, and more recently Brunei. It has also made inroads with US allies like the Philippines and Thailand. For its part, the US has made progress in drawing its new “comprehensive partner” Vietnam to its side. The rest are increasingly receptive to China’s geopolitical and economic ascension, albeit to varying degrees.

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China’s very public rejection of the 2016 International Arbitration Panel’s decision against it regarding its historical claims to maritime space in the South China Sea gave the US a propaganda windfall – which it has made good use of. This is a situation in which China’s actions will speak much louder than words.

Basically, China could more or less conform to the arbitration ruling in practice while shelving its claim for future generations to pursue. Some argue that it may already be doing so incrementally. They point to its refraining from building on, and allowing Philippine fishermen to return to, Scarborough Shoal.

The US could – and probably would – continue its freedom of navigation operations and ISR missions. But it would probably have less Southeast Asian support in doing so

China could confirm this appraisal by refraining from enforcing its annual fishing ban, arresting “foreign” fishermen in areas it claims beyond its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), or supporting illegal Chinese fishing. It could also stop interfering with petroleum exploration companies operating under concessions from rivals in areas beyond its EEZ and potential extended continental shelf.

The next step would be the sharing of resources in those disputed areas, including joint development and joint enforcement of agreed regimes against regional and extra-regional violators. In this manner, China could edge the US out, politically, of the South China Sea. Of course, the US could – and probably would – continue its freedom of navigation operations and ISR missions. But it would probably have less Southeast Asian support in doing so.

Henry Kissinger once used the metaphor of “osmosis” to characterise Chinese policy in the region. He meant that China was bent on the slow permeation of its culture and influence into neighbouring regions rather than using military intimidation like the US. China could indeed achieve its objective by “osmosis” rather than coercion. This is why China should compromise with its rival claimants and try to publicly distinguish its disputes with them from its strategic contest with the US.

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