East Asia Watch

South China Sea: Lessons in magnanimity from Qing emperors

Generosity towards smaller neighbours rather than a greater assertion of its dominance in the region would be the more productive course in Beijing's foreign policy

For the countries of Asean battling Covid-19, China's promise of 100 million face masks and 10 million protective suits, among other much-needed medical supplies, was a godsend.

These materials, to be supplied both as grant assistance and through commercial channels, were pledged by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at a special virtual summit of Asean and its three regional partners - China, Japan and South Korea - last week.

Another move that should be welcome is the Covid-19 recovery facility, with an initial capitalisation of US$5 billion (S$7.1 billion), that was proposed by the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Not so welcome, though, are Chinese fishing boats that were seen in February around Indonesia's Natuna islands, flanked by China Coast Guard vessels, and the appearance last week of a Chinese survey ship, escorted by other vessels, in contested waters in the South China Sea, near Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.

Earlier this month, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank in waters near the disputed Paracel Islands after a collision with a Chinese Coast Guard ship, with each side accusing the other of ramming its vessel.

Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, along with fellow Asean member state the Philippines, have competing claims with China over various island features in the busy and resource-rich waterway.

China and Indonesia do not have overlapping territorial claims, but Beijing has insisted that the waters around the Natunas are traditional Chinese fishing grounds and that its fishermen have a right to fish there, although the area is within Indonesia's exclusive economic zone.

China's assertion of its claims in the South China Sea at a time when countries in the region are preoccupied with battling the coronavirus pandemic and feeling vulnerable must be unsettling to Asean even as it is grateful for the medical help rendered by its giant neighbour.

With its own outbreak abating and its economy restarting ahead of other countries still in the grip of the virus, China is in a good position to grasp the opportunity presented by the pandemic to improve ties with the region frayed by territorial disputes in recent years, just as it did during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

But its eagerness to press its maritime claims at the same time could nullify those efforts.


In the years before the Asian financial crisis, relations between China and its South-east Asian neighbours had been marred by their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.


Things had come to a head in 1995 when the Philippines discovered that the Chinese navy had been building permanent structures on Mischief Reef, an atoll 217km from the Philippine island of Palawan.

The atoll is claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China said the structures were shelters for fishermen, but they effectively meant Chinese occupation of the atoll.

Asean was alarmed enough that its foreign ministers met in Singapore and put out a statement expressing serious concern over the development, and called for early resolution of the issue.

By the late 1990s, however, things had changed between China and its Asean neighbours.

The game changer was the Asian financial crisis. A succession of currency devaluations in countries in the region, including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, led to a regionwide economic slump.

At a time when Western powers like the United States were slow to extend a helping hand, Beijing did a few things that won the gratitude and goodwill of the crisis-hit nations.

First, it refrained from devaluing the yuan although this would have helped protect the competitiveness of its exports against those of the crisis-hit countries, thus avoiding adding pressure to these embattled economies.

Second, it provided US$4 billion in aid to countries in the region, through the International Monetary Fund - which was giving out loans to stabilise the troubled economies - and through bilateral channels.

At the same time as playing the good Samaritan during the financial crisis, China also took a more flexible, less aggressive approach towards the issue of South China Sea disputes, according to analysts.

Whereas it had earlier refused to hold talks despite calls from Asean to do so, China started dialogues with Asean on the South China Sea in 1999. These culminated in the 2002 non-binding Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that set out norms of behaviour meant to maintain peace in the contested waters.

It was meant to be a prelude to a legally binding Code of Conduct to manage disputes.

In the warmer atmosphere in the aftermath of the financial crisis, China and Asean also began talks in 2000 on a free-trade deal, agreeing on a framework in 2002.

The two sides also entered into a strategic partnership in 2003.

What ensued after the Asian financial crisis was a decade of ever closer economic ties between China and Asean members even as territorial disputes were shelved and joint development of contested areas explored.

This was taking place at a time when the US was preoccupied with its war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan and less engaged in South-east Asia.



However, the South China Sea disputes came to the fore again in 2009 after Malaysia and Vietnam made a joint submission to the United Nations to extend their continental shelf as provided for under the UN Law of the Sea.

China submitted a rebuttal, saying it had "indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters". This was when it introduced the now-infamous "nine-dash line" map that covers almost the entire South China Sea.

Tensions grew that led to flare-ups such as the 2012 stand-off between Chinese surveillance ships and the Philippine Navy in the Scarborough Shoal, and the 2014 confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese boats in waters off the Vietnamese coast over the deployment of a Chinese oil rig in the area.

Economically, China competed with some Asean member states for foreign investments. What's more, the Asean-China FTA appeared to have benefited China more than some of the Asean members, leading to some unhappiness among these states.

China's building of artificial islands on reefs and atolls and placing of military installations on these islands added to the tension.

While other claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines have also reclaimed land and militarised isles they occupy, the far bigger scale and extensiveness of China's reclamation and militarisation stoked concern not only among Asean members but also other powers such as the US and Japan.

Still, after the 2016 international arbitral tribunal ruled against China's historic claims in the South China Sea, and as its rivalry with the US has grown under President Donald Trump, Beijing has sought to negotiate a Code of Conduct with Asean, something it had dragged its feet over for many years.

The two sides have made some progress, agreeing on a draft text last year.

China's ramping up of investments in infrastructure in the region in recent years under the Belt and Road Initiative has also helped improve economic ties.

Now, with the coronavirus outbreak, China is again presented with an opportunity to improve ties and increase its influence over the region, much as it did in 1997.

It has made pledges to provide medical equipment and has sent medical experts to some Asean countries.

But it could do more. The US, its rival in the region, while battling an outbreak of its own that is yet to peak, is providing both expert help and financial aid to the region.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which has offices in six of the 10 Asean countries, is providing support and advice on how to tackle the pandemic.

The US has also committed US$18.3 million as aid to Asean countries to help them prepare laboratories for large-scale testing, enable risk communication, implement public health emergency plans for border points of entry as well as train and equip rapid responders in investigation and contact tracing, among other things.

China could provide technical and technological support as well as financial assistance, said Associate Professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

He added that it could also help build medical facilities such as the temporary hospitals it erected so swiftly in Wuhan city, the epicentre of the virus outbreak in China.

While the pandemic also provides an opportunity for China to assert its territorial claims, to do so would be counterproductive to its efforts to pull the region closer into its orbit.

There is anxiety across Asia about whether China will take advantage of this moment when the virus is affecting US forward-deployed forces in the region, noted former US diplomat Kurt Campbell recently. The US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, on deployment in the Pacific Ocean, has been stricken by the virus, with several hundred of its 5,000-strong crew down with the disease.


If China hopes to be able to influence the region rather than just dominate it through sheer power, it needs to be more sensitive to the concerns and interests of the countries in the region, said Mr Lye Liang Fook, senior fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

In this regard, Chinese President Xi Jinping could take a leaf from the foreign-policy book of the emperors of the Qing dynasty.

In the early 18th century, Vietnam, a tributary state of the Qing empire, grabbed some land north of its border to gain access to some copper mines. The Qing emperor, instead of responding harshly, ceded part of the land to Vietnam, recounted journalist Michael Schuman, author of the book Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History Of The World.

"Most states in the region accepted China's superior stature and participated in its diplomatic order willingly, to a great degree not out of fear of China, but because doing so offered real benefits," he added in an e-mail interview.

In managing the South China Sea disputes, some give and take and a little generosity would go some way towards helping China win trust and respect from its smaller neighbours.

To begin with, instead of jostling with fishermen of the region in their exclusive economic zones, or pushing out foreign fishermen in disputed waters and justifying these actions by saying these are traditional fishing waters of Chinese fishermen (they are also traditional fishing grounds of fishermen in countries around these waters), Beijing could explore fishing agreements with Asean states.

Having a binding Code of Conduct - rather than another non-binding one favoured by Beijing - that keeps the waters open and inclusive would also go a long way towards maintaining stability and peace in the South China Sea.

Managing its conflicting claims with its smaller neighbours without coming across as a bully or being avaricious will serve China's ambition to lead the region better.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2020, with the headline 'South China Sea: Lessons in magnanimity from Qing emperors'. Subscribe