The View From Asia

Asean, China and the South China Sea

Asia News Network commentators discuss peace in the South China Sea. Here are excerpts:

The myth of war

Richard Heydarian

Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippines

Two centuries since the Napoleonic wars, we are once again confronting the spectre of conflict, this time in Asia's seascape, particularly in the South China Sea, where China has been challenging America's decades-long naval hegemony in Asia.

As I wrote in a previous book, Asia's New Battlefield , if there were to be a third world war, it will most likely take place in our maritime backyard. After all, as veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan has pointed out, it's in the South China Sea where the parameters of US-China competition are most pronounced.

Without a question, there are legitimate reasons for concern.

But should we really fear war in the near future?

President Rodrigo Duterte thinks so. He has repeatedly claimed that if smaller claimant states such as the Philippines were to assert their rights, China would resort to armed conflict. A more careful analysis of China's foreign policy, however, reveals that the Asian powerhouse is the last country to wish for war.

First of all, any armed confrontation would severely disrupt China's export-oriented economy, since the country depends on the South China Sea for a vast majority of its trade as well as energy imports.

Second, any war in the South China Sea, especially against a weaker and helpless adversary like the Philippines, would irrevocably damage China's regional standing, sowing panic among other smaller states and forcing them to start hedging their bets by fully aligning with America.

This would not only represent a soft-power disaster for China, but would also immediately tilt the regional balance of power in America's favour.

Third, any war in the South China Sea would be used as a pretext by America, Japan, India, Australia and major European powers to step up their military presence in the area.

This would immediately end China's current position of dominance and test the mettle of China's People's Liberation Army, which hasn't fought a single war since the end of the Cold War.

As Sun Tzu, China's legendary strategic thinker, counselled in The Art Of War: "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."

This is precisely why Beijing's strategy is to intimidate smaller claimant states such as the Philippines through psychological warfare.

We shouldn't fall for this trick. Rule of law is the best and only way to manage and resolve the disputes, short of accepting Chinese maritime hegemony.

Constructive engagement key


China Daily, China

Summing up his impressions of the foreign ministers' meetings on East Asia cooperation that just concluded in Singapore, chief Chinese diplomat Wang Yi highlighted a sharp contrast: a "very successful and smooth" 10+3 session and a 10+8 session that displayed "some negative tendencies".

The 10+3 mechanism convenes the 10 Asean member countries and China, Japan and South Korea. The 10+8 session incorporates Australia, India, New Zealand, Russia and the United States with the 10+3.

Mr Wang's appraisal highlighted that as countries in the region press ahead with cooperation and seek to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea, some "extra-regional countries" constitute a threat to the entire region.

In a break from a previous convention, where Beijing avoided identifying any offending party, Mr Wang identified the US as the "foremost driver of the region's militarisation", criticising Washington for sabre-rattling by frequently sending large-scale strategic weapons into the region.

As with the ongoing tit-for-tat actions between China and the United States on trade, the exchange of words surrounding allegations of militarisation may escalate.

In his separate talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Mr Wang again elaborated on Beijing's position, and urged the parties not to misread its intentions. This may be easier said than done. But it is essential if there is to be constructive engagement.

The renewed Asean position

A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi

The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

July marked two years since an international arbitration court ruled in favour of the Philippines versus China concerning their maritime jurisdiction dispute in the South China Sea.

Much has happened, however, since that landmark ruling in The Hague. For one thing, Beijing has continued to ignore the court's ruling, proceeding ahead with its reclamation of features in the South China Sea and installing military facilities on its man-made islands.

At the same time, the United States has abandoned its previous "pivot to Asia", and, under President Donald Trump, it is showing itself to be an unpredictable actor in the region.

Such developments have left many observers pessimistic about the future prospect of the South China Sea, with control over the disputed area seemingly being handed over to Beijing.

Even supposed progress on a code of conduct between Asean and China appears little more than lip service that will do little to change the facts on the ground.

Two years on since the court in The Hague made its landmark ruling, it could be argued that agreeing on a single draft negotiating text represents some progress.

Having cleared a stumbling block of different negotiating texts, the burden is now on China to show good faith and deliver progress on its part.

In this sense, Jakarta should work with other Asean countries to ensure that the region's renewed position on the South China Sea does not go to waste.

• The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news media organisations.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2018, with the headline Asean, China and the South China Sea. Subscribe