CHANGING COURSE IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
CHANGING COURSE IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
Following the visit by China’s Vice President’s visit to the US,
Nazery Khalid ponders how Sino-US relations will pan out in the South China Sea with the change in leadership in both countries
The recent visit by China’s Vice President Mr Xi Jinping to the US ended with him boldly pronouncing that relations between Beijing and Washington will enter a “new historical starting point”.
This coming from someone touted to be the heir apparent to the Chinese premiership is worth noting. While he would not be handed the premiership on a platter, the granting of audience by President Obama was an acknowledgment of Mr Xi’s prospect of becoming a President Xi.
Waxing lyrical over Sino-US ties, Mr Xi described it as an “unstoppable river that keeps surging ahead”.
These plaudits came amid American uneasiness over growing Chinese economic, political and military clout. They especially belie the tension between the two powerbrokers in the South China Sea, a stage where their strategic intents are played out in a game of political brinkmanship that observers worry could potentially trigger conflict.
There has been a series of spats between China and several claimant states in the resource-rich sea. China claims the entire sea, as underlined by its ‘nine dotted line’ map that has caused outcry among other claimant states, and has declared the sea a “core interest”.
Such strong verbiage suggests China would not hesitate to do whatever it takes to protect this interest, including employing military means.
China is adamant that it has “undisputed sovereign rights” over the entire sea. In a thinly-veiled reference to the US, China also rejects the intervention of external powers in disputes in the sea.
The US has countered this by pronouncing that it has “national interest” in protecting freedom of navigation in the sea where a third of global trade passes through. It has also reiterated that territorial disputes should be settled using the basis of international law and has offered to facilitate the process. China, a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), has scoffed at this call coming from a country which has not ratified the convention.
Washington has lent its support to the Philippines in its spat with Beijing over disputed areas in the sea. This has incurred the displeasure of China which insists that disputes in the sea are a regional matter.
The description by President Obama that the US is a ‘Pacific power’ underscores Washington’s belief that Asia Pacific is the center of gravity in the 21st century. The US has even declared its intention to ‘pivot’ to Asia, emphasizing strongly on rebalancing its priorities in the Asia Pacific.
It is a no-brainer to view this strategy as a response to China’s increasingly bold conduct in the region, especially in the South China Sea. Several US senators have urged the Obama Administration to show more teeth against China in the sea.
Despite Mr Xi’s comforting words on Sino-US ties, China has some way to go to soothe frayed nerves over its assertiveness in the sea. China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Mr Cui Tiankai was quoted as saying in 2011 that “individual countries” were “playing with fire” in the sea, referring to the US in the process.
As far as diplo-speak goes, that is as stern as a warning can get.
The feel-good outcome of Mr Xi’s visit to the US did not yield much in terms of shedding light on China’s strategic intents in the sea. Analysts expecting helpful policy clues from Beijing from his visit only had slim pickings from his statements to work with.
Give peace a chance
There is a saying that all politics are domestic. Even foreign policies are driven by domestic dynamics, concerns, opinions and pressure.
Going by this adage, it can be said that the policies of China and the US in engaging one another in the South China Sea are influenced by the expectations of their respective constituencies and how their leaderships should respond to them.
Flag-waving Americans have rallied against the geo-political and economic effects of China’s rise as a global power, detrimental to US interests. Meanwhile, the notion of US being a power in decline yet always sticking its nose in other regions’ affairs and is out to contain China is not a hard-sell in China.
Both countries are facing Presidential elections this year and there is possibility that there will be a change in leadership in both countries. It would be interesting to see how the developments in local politics in China and the US would have a bearing on their policies and conduct in the sea.
Will the change of guards in Beijing and Washington bring a reorientation of policies towards one another? Will a new US President blunt the Obama Administration’s assertion of the US being a ‘Pacific power’ amid slumping US economy and severe military budget cuts? Will a more conservative new Chinese premiere bring a softer tone to the leadership and convince the military apparatchiks to adapt a less aggressive posture in the South China Sea?
Worth considering also are other possible changes that could alter the geo-political landscape in the sea and reshape US and China’s policies. For example, should China agree to a Code of Conduct in the sea with ASEAN countries and change tack to engage them on a multilateral basis in discussing disputes, the strategic dynamics of the disputes would change wholsesale. In turn, less adversarial posturing by China may demand the US to recalibrate its strategies accordingly.
The world will be holding its breath to find out if current policies and postures of China and the US in the sea will be maintained, tweaked or even re-orientated if there is a change in leadership in those countries.
The multitude of issues and challenges, complexity of disputes and rising tension in the South China Sea demand a nuanced response from the stakeholders. Current policies and positions that do nothing but antagonize other parties, stoke tension and threaten security in the sea should be reevaluated, if not completely abandoned.
This is of course the collective responsible of all interested parties. However, keen focus will be trained on China and the US to show leadership that befits their global stature and to ensure that their policies and conduct to safeguard their respective interests in the sea do not undermine the interests of others and worse, lead to conflicts.
Mr Xi scored brownie points when he stopped by Iowa in the heart of America during his visit. The world will be watching if he will work just as hard at winning the hearts of Americans with his policies in the sea if – or when - he becomes the new Chinese Premiere.
Nazery Khalid is a Senior Fellow at a Malaysian-based think tank, Maritime Institute of Malaysia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org