Jan 26, 2013

ASEAN - China's Game Plan in Southeast Asia

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In Brunei, Beijing will try to scupper South China Sea cooperation without driving states toward the U.S.

One has to feel sympathy for Brunei, this year's chairman of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Over the past few years, territorial disputes over the South China Sea exposed Asean's internal divisions as Beijing adopted a more muscular policy to bolster its claims. While China did not create those divisions, it proved adept at exploiting them. This has made chairing Asean a much more challenging job than it used to be.

Due to differing national interests, and their differing relationships with China, Asean members view the dispute differently. Vietnam and the Philippines see it as a major concern and are cozying up to the U.S., while fellow claimants to the Spratly Islands Malaysia and Brunei downplay tensions. Indonesia and Singapore have called on China to provide legal justifications for its expansive claims.

But Thailand, Laos, Burma and Cambodia short-sightedly do not believe they have a direct stake in the dispute, and don't want to risk damaging close ties with China by raising the issue. In fact, the thought of more U.S. influence is proving more divisive. So the lowest common-denominator consensus at Asean is, blandly, the need for peace and stability in the South China Sea. Moving beyond that has proved impossible.

No wonder during Cambodia's chairmanship of Asean last year, Beijing successfully used its economic influence over Phnom Penh to ensure the dispute was not addressed in a substantive manner. Prime Minister Hun Sen toed Beijing's line, putting his lucrative bilateral relationship with China ahead of Asean's broader interests.

In July, disagreements within Asean over whether the South China Sea should even be mentioned in a communiqué scuppered attempts to issue that joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history. A repeat performance of this fiasco was only narrowly averted in November.

Brunei is obviously keen to avoid making the same embarrassing mistake. To that end, it will use all the diplomatic skills at its disposal to maintain a fig leaf of consensus within Asean while trying to avoid giving offense to Beijing.

Asean not only has a new chair in 2013, but also a new secretary general, who will likely also take a neutral stance. Seasoned Vietnamese diplomat Le Luong Minh took over early this month, and will remain at the helm until 2017. Among the four Asean claimants, Vietnam has the most fractious relationship with China. Mr. Le, however, has stressed that neither Asean nor its top official would take a position on the merits of competing territorial claims. He has called for a "spirit of compromise" to resolve the dispute.

The problem is compromise is anathema for China. It has sought to uphold its expansive claims in the South China Sea by increasing its military and paramilitary presence, as well as bullying the other claimants diplomatically. Last week, it issued a new map that increases the number of disputed features as Chinese territory to 130 from 29.

Some Asean members like the Philippines want neighbors to agree on a binding code of conduct in these seas, but no matter how much they push for it, if China doesn't want to play it won't happen. And it doesn't. Despite agreeing in principle last year to a code, Beijing now believes that the "time is not ripe" to begin talks, according to China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. Instead, it prefers to focus on implementing a non-binding agreement it signed with Asean in 2002 which aims to reduce tensions and build mutual trust.

China's intransigence is unsurprising. It calculates that it can parlay its growing economic and military clout into coercing its neighbors to eventually accept its claims. It has already achieved that outcome with Cambodia, which has surely emboldened it further.

Even if China were to begin discussions with Asean this year, it would undoubtedly prolong the process and veto any provisions that would limit its sovereignty-building activities. The final product is, therefore, unlikely to look very different from the toothless 2002 agreement in place today.

Beijing however knows that its approach with Asean has frustrated members like Hanoi and Manila who, disappointed with Asean's lack of solidarity, have turned to the U.S. China is worried, which is why it has complained loudly about President Barack Obama's so-called pivot to Asia. But it has a way of weakening America's influence, too.

To wit, China will continue to give Asean face by lauding its regional "centrality," but on the issue of maritime security, its strategy will be divide and rule. This provides a win-win situation for Beijing, as it ensures that the dispute will only be dealt with in a superficial manner at Asean-led forums, in which America is a participant. Once Asean proves incapable of tackling major security issues such as the South China Sea, Washington may lose its new found enthusiasm for the organization, leaving China as the organization's dominant external dialogue partner.

Conflict is not inevitable in the South China Sea. Barring an accidental clash at sea, the status quo will continue into 2013. Tensions will ebb and flow, friction will increase over access to maritime resources such as oil, gas and fish, and Asean and China will talk about talks. But nobody should expect any major breakthroughs under Brunei's chairmanship.

Mr. Storey is senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is the author of "Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security" (Routledge, 2011).

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