Member states of Asean have been pursuing a strategy based largely on soft balancing and diplomatic engagement towards China for over three decades.
The soft balancing makes use of institutional mechanisms such as the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus. These platforms as well as negotiations to craft a code of conduct all play a part in efforts to restrain Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.
In recent years, however, fears have been expressed about the inability of such soft balancing efforts to produce concrete results, especially at a time when Asean members are increasingly divided themselves and some may be pursuing soft bandwagoning vis-a-vis China.
Critics rarely come up with alternative actionable proposals, other than that the United States and its allies step up their military presence and challenge China frontally, which may produce an outcome unpleasant to all parties, especially Asean members.
The question then is what the future of soft balancing is by way of using institutional mechanisms and limited ententes in restraining China and, to some extent, the US from generating aggressive policies in the region.
Is it time to make a bold move for declaring the South China Sea a zone of peace under United Nations auspices and encouraging China and the US to respect peace and tranquillity in this theatre, with binding confidence-building measures and arms control commitments?
A zone of peace may be unpalatable to the great powers, but it may be in the interests of all, especially if the danger of war lurks behind attempts to carve out geographical spaces, weaponise the waterway and limit navigation rights of states.
The challenges Asean faces in its soft balancing efforts are many.
First, the structural constraints. The international system is currently going through a re-configuration mode. The end of the Cold War produced a brief period of near-unipolarity in which the US emerged as an uncontested military and economic leader. But the 2008-09 financial crisis undermined that dominance. As the US-led order continues to fray, China's economic power and influence have grown.
In terms of military might, China still lags the US. Instead, Beijing is adroitly using asymmetric strategies including island building and base acquisitions and more importantly, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and these are difficult to match. Asean members that were reasonably comfortable with the US-led order are suddenly forced to think of a world where China is emerging as a genuine contender to the American-led order, especially in the Indo-Pacific.
The second constraint is institutional. The golden years of international institutions are the first 20-30 years of their founding. Usually, institutions emerge out of war or some major crises to either international or regional order. The original sense of unity of purpose will begin to dissipate as the institutions come of age. The threat environment begins to change and fatigue tends to develop among member-states.
Institutions that are well-designed to deal with changes tend to do better, but most often they do not have built-in mechanisms for learning and adaptation. In this regard Asean has been fairly successful, but today it faces a multitude of challenges, making the old rules based on consensus insufficient to deal with them.
The third set of challenges comes from the changing strategies of China. Unlike previous rising powers, Germany and Japan in particular, China has resorted to an indirect strategy. Although called "peaceful rise" and later "peaceful development", the strategies of building small islets in South China Sea and limited naval expansion into the Indian Ocean have not been felt as threatening to state security as direct massive expansion by previous rising powers. The slow expansion helps China avoid the hazards of a sudden power surge. At the same time, its emergence as the leading economic partner of Asean member states and others such as India and Japan limited their manoeuvring room.
The BRI is an indirect strategy for expansion. This interlocking of smaller states into a trading and investment system offers China hegemony without obtaining military dominance. This is China's version of the East India Company, adapted to the times.
The lack of alternative sources of investment, especially for infrastructure projects, has made many Asian and African states to turn to China. All Asean members are members of the BRI, even though some are benefiting more than others. This means that they have little interest to rock the boat. A failure of the BRI may turn states against China, but this is far from certain at this point. Active hard balancing, relying on formal alliances and military buildups, seems improbable as the economic conditions remain in favour of China in the foreseeable future.
So, what is left by way of strategy? Despite its limitations, soft balancing through existing Asean institutions and limited alignments looks to be a better option than doing nothing or resorting to hard balancing.
However, adding a new approach, that is, declaring the South China Sea as a zone of peace, under UN auspices, and encouraging the great powers to sign protocols respecting such a zone may have long-term value.
A code of conduct for the South China Sea is important but it could be part of a larger zone of peace idea so that other parameters can be developed to restrain great power competition. These may include agreements on preventing accidents, heavy militarisation, and freedom of navigation, which can all form part of a UN-sanctioned zone of peace.
Such a zone of peace is of vital importance to all trading nations, including China, as the success of BRI will rest on peace and order in the region.
- T. V. Paul is a James McGill Professor of International Relations, McGill University, Canada, and currently a visiting professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. A former president of the International Studies Association, he is the author of the forthcoming book, Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing From Empires To The Global Era.