President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines is confirmation that America-led bilateral security relationships remain the backbone of peace and stability in the region. Even so, the greater military power and economic weight of countries such as Japan might tempt weaker Southeast Asian capitals to stay on the sidelines when it comes to tensions in the East China Sea, and adopt a less direct and confrontational approach to keeping Chinese behaviour in check in the South China Sea.
That would be a mistake. Essential to Beijing’s “divide and rule” strategy is to convince states that its interests in the East China Sea are unrelated to those in the South China Sea, and vice versa. In reality, Southeast Asian states should realize that as far as China is concerned, the latter’s maritime claims are indivisible. Known for the creative multilateral diplomacy that only smaller states tend to pursue, it is time that key players within Asean push for a Code of Conduct that prohibits the use of force to settle territorial disputes to cover all maritime regions in the Asia-Pacific, and not just the South China Sea.
China’s strategic interests in the East and South China Seas are obvious: making good on its claims in the region would allow it an unimpeded strategic breakout beyond the so-called constraints of the First Island Chain; an imaginary line stretching from Northeast China, through Japan and the Ryukyu archipelago, the Philippines and down to the Strait of Malacca.
But there is more than naval strategy at play. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now committed to the fiction that China is simply restoring the proper strategic and territorial order that has stood for millennia, ignoring the reality that the self-designated Middle Kingdom is only one of several historic kingdoms and polities with longstanding interests in the region. In particular, and in its commitment to recreate what the CCP sees as the natural condition of a “greater China,” reclaiming its “historic waters” in the East and South China Seas is becoming central to the CCP’s political raison d’etre. These claims have been reaffirmed as essential elements of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” and figure prominently in various official documents produced by the People’s Liberation Army such as its Defense White Paper.
Importantly, and having been entrenched in state-sanctioned official histories, the “greater China” fiction increasingly shapes the contemporary outlook and expectations of a growing number of Chinese elites as the country’s unregulated media such as blog sites would attest to.
This sense of reclaiming what is a contrived history partially explains why China has become more, rather than less trenchant about its maritime claims even as it is rising in the most benign strategic environment that the country has faced for centuries. After all, no major power questions China’s control over territories that it currently administers in Tibet and Xinjiang, while any military invasion of the mainland would be unthinkable. Yet, Beijing’s re-drawing of its infamous nine-dash line in the South China Sea now includes the Natuna waters, meaning that Indonesia now joins Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei as countries with maritime disputes with China.
This brings us back to Southeast Asian diplomacy. These states have generally remained silent when tensions between Japan and China have arisen in the East China Sea – which suits an already isolated China just fine. Yet, just as the CCP’s claims in both these maritime regions is part and parcel of its “greater China” concept, Beijing is pursuing the same “talk and take” strategy in both of these Seas: ostensibly speak the language of negotiation while entrenching its de facto control over the disputed regions square mile by square mile.
It is time for the key players within Asean to realize that every bit of ground, actual or perceived, Beijing makes in the East China Sea will only embolden and steel the resolve of Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea. In other words, successfully rebuffing Chinese bullying and pushing of the envelope in the East China Sea serves the interests of maritime nations in the South China Sea.
To be sure, China will vociferously reject the notion that one Code of Conduct should apply to all maritime regions in Asia, much less accept that such a unified Code should be binding.
That is beside the point. Like any great power wanting a change to the status quo, Beijing will not relinquish the option of force in resolving maritime disputes. But one can at least win the diplomatic argument, and doing so is largely about getting others on side, and thrusting the burden of justification onto the other side.
If Southeast Asian nations were to get Japan, South Korea and America to support such a unified Code—something that is eminently feasible—the onus would be upon Beijing to justify its rejection of such a unified Code and maximize the region-wide diplomatic fall-out as it goes about doing so.
This might not actually restrain further assertive action by China—but it will raise the non-military cost of such behavior.