Having moved at a snail’s pace for years, the international dispute over control of the South China Sea is reaching a new stage. The United States military is openly challenging China’s claim of some 90 percent of this 3.5 million square kilometer global trade route.
Both governments have warned of the risk of miscalculation, creating a specter of South East Asia returning to its role of half a century ago when it was combative arena for super-power rivalry.
The unpredictability of the American presidential election now heightens the risk because inevitably it will come with ramped-up anti-China campaign rhetoric. This begs the question as to whether it would be better for the East Asian region to sort out the dispute itself and ask the United States to step back.
Opposition to that concept within the United States itself comes from the criticism and perceived failure of President Barack Obama’s non-interventionist brand of foreign policy. But the testing ground for this has been in the Middle East where neither intervention nor holding back has worked well.
East Asia is very different. Having picked itself up from many wars over the past century, it has built world-class economies with strong institutions. The region has shown how trade can be used to dampen political tensions, and how dictatorships can transition peacefully to varying degrees of democracy. It has an enviable track record of prioritizing trade and the future over war and historical grievances and has earned a reputation for brave ideas – from Japan’s post-war recovery to the development of the Singaporean city-state to the economic giant that China has become.
This region now has a chance to shift away from the American security umbrella and mentorship that has helped it get this far and show that complex, seemingly intractable problems can be solved in-house.
It has made a start. Japan has forged stronger alliances with India and Australia and is taking a lead to balance China’s economic muscle flexing through the region in the past decade.
The Japanese focus is on infrastructure with a pledge of $110 billion over the next five years for projects such as the East-West Economic Corridor running from Vietnam, though Laos and Thailand to Myanmar. This acts as a counterweight to China’s similar investment plans which include a high-speed rail connecting China to Singapore through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. Japan is running much of its investment through the the Asian Development Bank, modeled after the World Bank, whereas China has set up its own counterpart, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Japan has also strengthened strategic partnerships with Indonesia and Malaysia and is helping the Philippines and Vietnam – nations openly confronting China over the South China Sea – with intelligence sharing and building up their maritime patrol capability.
India, too, joined with Japan to produce a joint statement from two of Asia’s biggest hitters warning against China’s “expansionist policies” in the region. Japan and South Korea agreed to end the contentious dispute over Second World War sex slaves, enabling a move toward a strategic alliance that would impact the parallel dispute in the East China Sea over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
All this is useful, but it may not end up doing what needs to be done.
So far there is no group of nations with a unified enough position to force Beijing to negotiate. China is refusing outright to join any multilateral forum to find a settlement and continues to reclaim land and build strategic outposts on reefs and atolls, including a 3,000-meter-long runway on the Spratly Islands’ Fiery Cross reef. Chinese vessels have also harassed Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen, and the country has announced that two aircraft carriers will soon join its expanding blue water navy.
China has also shown how events might unfold if its policy is challenged. From May to August, it has imposed a South China Sea annual fishing ban enforced with attacks on fishermen. From one community alone, Ly Son Island off the coast of central Vietnam, 20 out of the 50 boats have been targeted during the past year as they ventured towards the Paracel Islands that lie midway between the Vietnamese and Chinese coastlines.
Boats have been rammed, crew beaten and equipment and fishing catches stolen, according to the Vietnamese. Over the Spratly Islands, off the coasts of the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, the Chinese military recently warned away a civilian aircraft chartered by the BBC.
There is no evidence that a US Navy carrier group will settle this dispute. Indeed, the challenge might make it worse, and there are signs that China is beginning to listen.
Entering office in 2012, China’s President Xi Jinping began by deepening the rift with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. He angered Vietnam by bringing an oil drilling rig into its waters and he tried to subdue the Philippines with an economic boycott as well as making a confrontational show of force along the Line of Control with India.
Now, facing multiple and simultaneous disputes with its neighbors, China appears to be cooling off. On both the maritime sovereignty issues, Beijing stands isolated. In the long term, despite economic and military power, it will have to get on with neighbors who are increasingly united and bold.
“We will keep fishing,” says Tran Ngoc Nguyen, chairman of the Ly Son Island district. “Vietnamese fishermen do not scare easily.”
There is enough common ground within East Asia to create solid multilateral alliances that, while challenging Beijing, could specifically search for a settlement allowing compromise without loss of Chinese face. The stronger the unified front, the more China must listen.
The blunt instrument of American military power on the other hand might succeed in deterring China’s excesses, but also risks wounding its dignity and taking control away from the governments of the region.
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. Washington also needs to deliver a linear and clear message to its electorate based on the paradox that an Ohio farmer seeking a better deal on grain prices can influence the deployment of US warships in faraway places.
This is not an issue forcing citizens to be either for or against Xi or a Saddam. US debate on China needs to resist such concepts.
There are massive obstacles to regional leaders grasping this opportunity and taking matters into their own hands. Japan must not be perceived as simply replacing the United States, particularly with the questionable role of its military. The South East Asian governments must make a firmer stand so they don’t feel on the one hand under the thumb of an authoritarian Greater China and on the other haunted by the 20th-century ghosts of Japanese brutality.
The region only need look at Europe’s regional challenges such as its inability to end the Bosnian war after 21 years and indecision on the refugee crisis to identify some of the difficulties ahead.
That doesn’t mean the region shouldn’t try.
It is far better for settlement to be reached within the region than be imported from Washington. Perhaps an initial deadline could be the change of US leadership on January 20th next year with a brief note to the Oval Office: “No need to spend time on this one, Mr/s President. We’ve got it covered.”