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Asean autonomy key as China's reach grows

Two developments in the past two weeks have had the South-east Asian region and the United States all worked up about China and its intentions in the South China Sea.

First off, last week, US broadcaster Fox News released satellite images of two batteries of a surface-to-air missile system on Woody Island in the Chinese-controlled Paracel chain, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

This would be the first time such weapons are deployed on the island, which also houses a garrison and has an airstrip, numerous radomes and two harbours.

The revelation had media and commentators in the West and the South-east Asian region going great guns about China's militarisation of the South China Sea.

The busy waterway, through which 30 per cent of the world's trade passes, and which is resource-rich to boot, is claimed by China almost in its entirety and in parts by Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan.

Then on Monday, the American think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a report saying that China was possibly installing high-frequency radar on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys, another disputed chain of islands, to the south-east of the Paracels.


A picture dated Feb 18, 2015, issued by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, showing Chinese construction at Mabini (Johnson) Reef, in the disputed Spratlys. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

CSIS' Mr Gregory Poling wrote that together with new airstrips and defence capabilities on the islands China occupies in the Spratlys, the radar facilities "speak to a long-term, anti-access strategy by China that would see it establish effective control over the sea and air space throughout the South China Sea".

The Chinese response to accusations of militarisation has been defiant, saying it was well within their right to deploy weapons on islands that belonged to them.

It was no surprise then that a meeting of the top envoys of China and the US - Mr Wang Yi and Mr John Kerry respectively - ended with the two men talking tough on the South China Sea. At their joint press conference after their meeting on Tuesday in Washington - set up possibly to mainly address the North Korea nuclear issue - Mr Kerry exhorted all parties to stop expansion and militarisation of occupied features in the contested waters.

Mr Wang, for his part, said Beijing hopes not to see "any more close-up military reconnaissance or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers to the South China Sea", in reference to US freedom of navigation operations close to Chinese-occupied islands and reefs to challenge China's territorial claims.

In the region, both the Vietnamese and Philippine governments raised concerns over the Woody Island missile placement.

As for the pundits, there is speculation among them that the Chinese are preparing to announce an air defence identification zone - an area through which unidentified aircraft may be intercepted for identification before they reach sovereign space - in the South China Sea, as it had done in the East China Sea in 2013. Some say the Chinese are turning the sea into a South China Lake.

Alarmist as these claims sound, they point to China's incremental reach in the region militarily, dubbed salami-slicing by some, that includes the artificial island-building on several reefs in the Spratlys that began in earnest in December 2013 and the likely installation of defence equipment on these islands in the months and years to come.

The Chinese navy has been seen exercising as far south as the James Shoal, within waters claimed by the Malaysians.

The Chinese are also staking their claims in the South China Sea in other ways. Its fishermen are venturing far and wide, even close to the Indonesian islands of Natunas, accompanied by coast guard vessels that prevent the Indonesian coast guard from arresting them as illegal fishermen.

China imposes a unilateral summer ban on fishing in disputed waters and detains or chases away fishermen, including Vietnamese fisher folk, from these waters during the ban period. It has parked coast guard vessels in the Luconia Shoals, just 120km from Miri town in East Malaysia, since 2013.

The Chinese refrain when justifying its actions, as articulated by Mr Wang on Tuesday, is that "the South China Sea islands have historically been China's territory" and that "China has a right to uphold its territorial integrity and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests".

Therein lies the answer to the conundrum of why and how far China will go to reclaim its backyard - and regain its status as a dominant power in the region. As China's comprehensive power grows, the more assertive it will be in doing so. It is part of the Chinese dream of rejuvenation of the nation as envisioned by President Xi Jinping.

This assertiveness is seen not only in the flexing of China's military muscle, but also of its diplomacy and its economic might.

The region has been the beneficiary of China's charm offensive in the two decades from the 1990s as it offered aid and trade and friendship that recognised Asean's centrality in the region.

But as its territorial disputes with some states in the region caused tension to rise, and as Asean sought to speak with one voice on the South China Sea issue, China has been seen to drive a wedge in Asean unity. A clear example of this was seen at the Phnom Penh foreign ministers' summit in 2012, where for the first time in the grouping's 45-year history, it failed to issue a joint communique.

That was because Cambodia as chair had refused to include mention of the South China Sea disputes in it, at the behest of the Chinese. China is the largest foreign investor and major donor of aid in Cambodia.

Now, apart from flexing their military muscle, the Chinese have come offering their vision of a 21st century maritime Silk Road to link the region via the sea to the West by building much-needed infrastructure. The plausible quid pro quo is what some have called the finlandisation of Asean - or the making of strategic concessions to a neighbouring major power in order to guarantee important elements of its independence.

It is little wonder that Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, said on Tuesday: "I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia."

What can the Asean states do to retain their autonomy and push back against the influence of China?

Asean has welcomed the US pivot to the region as a hedge against China. But it cannot really rely fully on the Americans. Their freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea are as much about American interests as they are about the region's.

The US and China as an established power and a rising power respectively will want to find ways to live with each other without going to war.

Mr Xi has offered his "new type of major power relations" as a construct for conducting their bilateral affairs. As Mr Wang said on Tuesday, Beijing and Washington have "far more common interests than areas of disagreement".

BBC correspondent Humphrey Hawksley put it well in a recent article: "A deal struck between Washington and Beijing could trample on East Asia's more nuanced interests that might be forgotten amid horse-trading on a basket of global issues."

But the options for Asean are there and it has been practising them; what the grouping needs is to make greater effort to improve on them. These are building Asean unity and cohesion, multilateralism and open regionalism.

Asean unity and cohesion will give it strength in numbers to stand firm on issues such as the South China Sea. But Asean needs to work harder to ensure each and every member will want to stand together by helping weaker members to grow strong economically and politically.

The grouping needs to keep working at strengthening its multilateral institutions, such as the East Asia Summit and the Asean Regional Forum that involve countries and groupings with interests in the region like the US, India and the European Union, to dilute China's influence.

Its open regionalism - together with its efforts to grow wealth - gives countries outside of the region a stake in it that will also work to counter China's influence.

While Asean states can hope that China will be benevolent towards them, in the end, they need to find in themselves, individually and as a bloc, the wisdom to deal with a major power like China in a way that ensures their autonomy and the region's peace and stability.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline 'Asean autonomy key as China's reach grows'. Print Edition | Subscribe