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How America can stop China in the South China Sea

The National Interest, May 27, 2015

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The release of a U.S. Navy P-8 video flying over the South China Sea was a shock to many. The footage revealed a small armada of dredging vessels, support ships, and auxiliaries, working diligently to build what looked like People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force bases. According to international law, most islets China has occupied lie within the territorial waters of either the Philippines or Vietnam, and Chinese actions could be interpreted as maritime invasion. Despite Chinese claims to the contrary, neither Chinese behavior, nor its 9 dotted line, are consistent with customary international law or by the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. Nor do it’s historical claims stand real scrutiny as a recent piece by South China Sea scholar, Bill Hayton, shows.

China’s actions, therefore, represent an infraction of the internationally agreed upon system of rules and are a major challenge to the current global maritime order, particularly since it takes place across one of the world’s most vital shipping arteries. In essence, China is building military installations on false reefs across one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, giving them control over those sea lanes. One might argue, that it is as much a challenge to international peace and security as was Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. If China is allowed to create islands in such a manner, what’s to stop a slew of global imitators? More to the point, what exactly is China’s strategic aim and what can the United States and its allies do about it?

Some might argue that China views the international system with cynicism, having been prey to Japanese and Western imperialism during the 18th and 19th centuries. China’s behavior, they say, is merely a means of protecting itself from the types of naval intrusions that it suffered historically and that it is building a “Great Wall of Sand,” to consolidate its First Island Chain. This argument is, at first appearance, a sound one. After all, there is some truth to the argument that Chinese naval behavior is predicated on a political historical narrative of weakness and foreign predation. Certainly, much of what China is doing is explained this way domestically to an increasingly nationalist audience at home.

However, China has shown itself to be willing to adopt elements of the international system which favor its interests; its membership in the UN Security Council and a number of international fora, like the WTO, World Bank, and many others reveal this buffet approach to the current order. Furthermore, under closer examination, China’s narrative of weakness—the so-called “100 years of humiliation”— is little more than clever posturing and historical selectivity. The narrative cleverly highlights predation on the part of the West, while papering over China’s own Imperial Qing (1644-1912) predation and colonization of neighbors Tibet, Vietnam, Dzungaria, and Formosa (Taiwan). In many ways, the 100 years narrative is used being used internally to justify China’s behavior in a similar way Berlin used the “shameful peace at Versailles” to mobilize Germany’s domestic politics in the inter-war period. When rising powers begin using the ‘victim card’ to justify their expansionist aims, we should all pay attention.

The historical similarity to Germany’s efforts to control its periphery during this the 1930s and China’s maritime expansionism might serve as a framework for how the US and its allies should build a political-military counter strategy. One immediate implication of the historical framework is to avoid any policy of appeasement; history teaches us that appeasement merely facilitated war in the end as Hitler’s ambitions were fed by the Rhine area and the Sudetenland. China’s strategy seems to hold a similar geopolitical logic to Germany’s territorial claims of the time. Certainly undersea gas fields and fertile fishing waters play a role, but fundamentally, China’s action has been about taking control of sea-lanes. This is in essence the first step in a three pronged strategy: first, dominate the South China Sea with Chinese military forces; second, use this de facto control to gradually and incrementally develop a new benevolent Sino-centric system in Southeast Asia; one in which ASEAN states implicitly submit their foreign and security policy to Chinese approval; third, use this control to exert pressure on Seoul, Taipei, Manila and Tokyo—four U.S. allies, heavily dependent on the sea-lane, which transits the South China Sea. This last policy is meant to be gradually expel the US from the region, without firing a shot. China’s control over those states lets them know, who really controls their destiny.

The only way to counter this grand strategy would be for the United States to incrementally shift the balance of its hedging policy away from one of engagement more to one of political and military balancing. The United States might adopt a two-pronged political and military strategy in close consultation with its friends and allies in the Asia Pacific region. However, it cannot afford to walk too far forward of regional public opinion; it must seek to maintain the moral high ground afforded it by China’s actions by walking in lock-step with regional partners. The first step should be to begin a long-term, multilateral diplomatic push at states in the region for a conference to cease militarization of the seas. The date of such a conference should be at least six months in the future, to give the US and its allies time enough to coordinate a concerted diplomatic push at fence-sitting states in the region, particularly the “flip” states Indonesia and Malaysia. US diplomats might trial this at the Shangri-La conference later this week. After all, even Chamberlain had a “Munich.” The failure of the United States and its allies to get China to a conference up until this point is indicative of the success of China’s salami slicing approach.

Secondly, in order to pressure China to the table, the United States must assist a concerted strategic change in the military posture of the Philippines and other like-minded states. With American, Japanese and Australian help, the Philippines should build up strong asymmetric capability, known as anti-access, area denial (A2/AD). Radar systems, mobile anti air-and-ship missile systems should be built up en masse so as to counter Chinese attempts to dominate the sea and air in and around the South China Sea. Such systems should be able to reach far into the South China Sea, and fundamentally challenge Chinese attempts to dominate the immediate domain. Such a strategy would nullify China’s new bases, making them virtually useless, while remaining defensive and non-provocative. Other ASEAN states interested in such defense technologies should also be considered for the program.

If such a strategy were well-funded, it would make things very difficult for Beijing. Of course, the PLAAF could react by hardening their airfields, and their presence would continue to be a peace-time source of leverage, but at least this leverage would be somewhat ameliorated tactically. Furthermore, their use as actual air fields in times of actual conflict would be challenged completely from Philippine air space. Such a tactic, if carried out incrementally and in response to Chinese efforts, would present Chinese strategists with a dilemma. If they continue to build up their forces, U.S. and allied forces would simply respond in kind. If they seek diplomatic redress, then both sides freeze the build-up. In many ways, this tactic would solve the age-old conundrum of how to get Beijing to parlay at the diplomatic conference described above. It would also counter the historical problem of appeasement or ‘rolling ambition’, the ever-increasing appetite for territory of challenging states.

At present, the policies of the United States and its allies are behind events on the ground. True, the new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines are a step in the right direction, and US-Japan-Australia capacity building efforts are becoming increasingly coordinated in Southeast Asia, but China is moving faster than many could have anticipated. No doubt, Beijing feels it must move fast, perhaps in expectation of the long-predicted slowdown of its economy. China is getting the goods, while the going is good. If the United States and its allies want to stop this, they must think fast and act faster. Certainly, such a strategy as outlined above, might be the first step in taking away the initiative, something Beijing has very much kept until now.


China and America: A Superpower Showdown in Asia?

The National Interest, 14 June, 2014

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Over the past several months, tensions between Washington and Beijing have steadily grown worse. Relying again on the incremental approach that has thus far served it well, China dragged a deep sea-drilling platform into Vietnamese-claimed waters, shouldering aside protesting Vietnamese vessels. Then on the 21st of May, President Xi Jinping proposed a new Asian security pact with nations such as Russia and Iran, a pact that pointedly excluded the US and seemed to be a club for authoritarian states. Then in June, Beijing refused arequest by a UN court of arbitration at The Hague to provide evidence of its claims in a case brought by the Philippines. Days later, a video released by Vietnam showed a heavy Chinese fishing vessel slowly crushing a Vietnamese counterpart; the moment seemed to perfectly symbolize China’s new diplomatic strategy towards the region and one could almost see the phrase “Chinese soft power” slipping under the waves with it. If one thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. As the West has continued to look for ways to exert pressure on Russia over its actions in Crimea, China finally revealed where its cards lay: Beijing inked a $400 billion natural gas deal with Moscow and now looks set to sign another. None of it good news for those who think China ought to be a status quo power, upholding the rules of the global system.

All of this must have been uppermost in President Obama’s mind in late May as he toured the region on what allies called a “reassurance tour” and Beijing called a “containment tour.” The tour failed to make any headway on the White House’s touted trade group, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP), but was overall a success by showing US allies and regional partners that the rebalance has the support of the White House. However, despite this brief show of US soft power diplomacy in the region, China’s rise has gradually shifted from being a welcome to an unwelcome event. One can almost see the exam question at some future university:

Were American leaders right to believe that economic liberalization and heavy investment in China would eventually lead to political liberalization, and make China into a responsible stakeholder?

Until recently, the preferred answer in Washington was yes.

It seemed certain to say that the economic liberalization of China was inherently a “good” thing, that raising millions out of poverty demonstrated once and for all the benefits of free market capitalism. The 1991 collapse of the USSR may have proven the failure of the communist economic model, but a successful China had demonstrated to the world capitalism’s strengths. And as every liberal knew, economic success brings with it a rising middle class, the vanguard of a pluralistic system.

Success, partly…

No one disputes that the first part of the story has been a triumphant success: China’s rampant growth as a state capitalist regime has dominated Western headlines for nearly two decades. An unprecedented influx of US, Japanese, Taiwanese and EU investment turned the Chinese economy red hot in less than a decade after Deng’s Southern Tour, with many becoming blasé about China’s double digit growth figures. Surely, Mao turned in his grave during the 2008 financial crisis, when many were calling China the savior of the global (capitalist) economy. Who could have predicted in his time that Chinese leaders would one day lecture their North Korean counterparts on the benefits of the free market? If anyone fretted that the second part of the story had not yet happened – China had not added political reforms to the mix – optimists would always add ‘yet’sotto voce. It was only a matter of time before China’s growing middle classes began clamoring for political as well as economic rights, they said, and saw signs of this in China’s growing online forums, which became miniature town meetings on corrupt officials and abuses of power.

And as Washington has watched with dismay, this Western notion that China would gradually liberalize politically has been dissipated more and more. Not only does President Xi show no signs of loosening Party control at home or of adopting liberal values abroad, his security proposal in Shanghai reveals an inclination to defend and augment authoritarianism. That brief spring felt before the 2008 Beijing Olympics quickly froze over as the regime reasserted control over television stations, bloggers and netizens, threatening three-year sentences to those who spread “internet rumors.” In early May, prominent journalist Gao Yu was detained as part of targeted campaign against activists in the run up tothe 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, an anniversary that was eerily silent in Beijing. Contrary to expectations, Xi has also consolidated and centralized power with the party and the military quickly, with the Economistcalling him the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng.

Turning the Tide

Is a new Cold War between China and the United States inevitable? Obama’s foreign policy for the region has sought to avoid definitively answering that question, as well, he might. The consequences of radically changing direction when it comes to China policy would be a dramatic shift in US grand strategy, the greatest perhaps since the fall of Soviet Union. Many in the West have claimed that China cannot be “contained,” pointing to Beijing’s role in servicing US debt as well as its place as a major trade partner to so many pivotal US allies. While there is some truth to this, it is not quiet as unthinkable as it once was. Michael Pettis, a renowned economist at the Peking University, along with many others predict a debt crisis for China in the next 4-5 years, in which Chinese growth rates will all but come to a halt. He argues that the Third Plenum reforms promoted by President Xi (raising savings rates for homeowners, raising the currency, dealing with land ownership and the internal passport system) are bound to come into stiff resistance from Chinese elites, happily profiting from the current system. The stakes are quite high: should Xi fail to push these reforms through, China could hit the growth wall suffered by Japan in the late 1980s. As with Japan in the 1980s, China is called the engine for the global economy, but as Japan stagnated in the early 1990s, the West experienced one of the biggest booms in recent memory. This doesn’t mean that China is a paper tiger, it does cast doubt on the idea that China will is destined to inherit the earth…

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Obama’s Pivot to Asia: 2014 and Beyond

4 June, 2014

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Leaving on a Jet Plane

It was late at night as Air Force One taxied to a halt at Narita Airport in Tokyo to kick off an extended Presidential visit to the region. Emerging from the aircraft, President Obama seemed determined to impress upon the region and Japan his personal commitment to the Asia Pacific. Deemed a ‘reassurance tour’, the President’s trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines was meant to ‘underscore a continued focus on the Asia Pacific region and commitment to his vision of rebalancing to the world’s largest emerging region,’ in the somewhat wooden phrasing of the White House.

Despite the President’s many statements to the contrary, over the next few days, it was clear to many analysts and journalists that the trip was meant to reassure US allies over growing Chinese assertiveness. Chinese media like the Xinhua railed against the trip and the wider policy of ‘containment’. The US “rebalancing strategy”, the Xinhua wrote hours after Obama’s plane touched down at Narita, “smacks of a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asian giant by rallying US allies”.  The Global Times quoted the Chinese Ambassador to Washington as saying the “rebalancing to Asia policy may need some ‘rebalancing’ so that the United States can maintain a good relationship to every nation in the region,” a not-so-subtle warning.

Missing the Point

Unfortunately, Chinese pundits missed the greater point in their haste to see rebalancing as simple containment and only a small number of analysts reported on the US rebalancing as a response to Chinese behavior. One such pundit, Yang Hengjun, a former diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council posed the question, ‘why are China’s neighbor’s so afraid of her’ in a regional forum, and though his efforts are laudable, he fails to connect Beijing’s problems with its policies, and instead blames the China’s media for hubristic statements that offend and scare neighbors. This neatly moves responsibility away from the military, CNOOC, and the Chinese leadership who have been promoting expansionism in the East and South China Sea maritime disputes. This attempt to forge a ‘CNN effect with Chinese characteristics’ rather reveals the constraints under which political analysts must be written in Beijing.

Japan and ROK

Despite the claims of the Global Times and others to the contrary, the trip was a success. And it was a success for one simple reason. It did what it said on the label. The president had gone to personify and symbolize US commitment to its allies in their various disputes with China and this was done. The United States’ reiterated its political and military support for the current status quo, and stated firmly that changes could only come peacefully and through diplomacy. Obama’s visit to Japan gave Prime Minister what he had long wanted, a presidential assurance that the Senkaku Islands (disputed with China) fell within the remit of the US-Japan security alliance. In return, Obama emphasized that Japan’s role as a regional force for stability would be enhanced by ‘collective self-defense’, a point that shows that the defence commitments of the alliance now cut both ways.

While some pundits have argued that Abe had done little more than take the President to a great sushi bar, giving little on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) front, this overlooks the primary reason for the trip and overstates the need for the TPP to be negotiated within its present time-table. Others – such as Kent Calder, a noted scholar on Japan – have argued that behind the diplomatic niceties between Obama and Abe, the chasm between Washington and Tokyo has become incredibly wide, particularly on history and nationalism issues. Whatever the case, it is clear that Abe and Obama shared a single agenda for this trip: to consolidate the alliance in the face of regional insecurity, and avoid open bickering. This they managed to do, though it is a small victory.

Obama’s pressure on Abe to deal with the ‘comfort women’ issue was rewarded in Seoul as President Park Guen-Hye presented a warm welcome to the President. Days before his visit, the reputable Asan Institute published a survey saying that 93% of South Koreans saw the alliance with the US in a positive light. High strung North Korean media attempts to brand the visit as one by a ‘pimp’ to his ‘crafty prostitute’,[6] only seemed to reaffirm Pyongyang’s isolation and inability to be taken seriously. Despite or perhaps because of warnings from Obama and Park, the awaited 4th nuclear test failed to materialize in the days up to and after the summit. Truly, the visit was marred by the Sewol ferry disaster, which was then boiling over into a cabinet reshuffle; events around the Russian annexation of the Crimea also took precedence. As expected, the latter event caused ripples of disquiet among US allies, concerned about Washington’s military commitments. If anything, however, Russian behavior only served to reinforce the need for the US alliance system.

Malaysia: Symbolically Substantive

Arguably, Obama’s trip to Malaysia was the smoothest as the US rebalance was openly welcomed by Malaysia’s leadership. In a press conference hosted by Prime Minister Najib, the two men agreed to elevate the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Partnership, agreeing on the interdiction principles of the PSI, and continuing to work on increased military interoperability. As with Japan, Malaysia has begun to edge closer to the US as Beijing’s claims have hardened in the maritime sphere. On the other hand, as with Japan, this has yet to bring home the TPP bacon and the President was again disappointed on the TPP front. However, his mood must have been lifted during the ‘town hall meeting’ with a number of Malaysia’s young people as he was greeted with screams of “We love you, Obama”, a reminder of his potent charisma and links to the region. In an East West paper, Elina Noor at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) argues that this was where the real power of Obama’s visit to Malaysia lay – his ability to connect with people. For those who remember the criticism endured by the Bush administration in the region, his ability to connect has been a welcome one.

Last but not least

The final visit of the reassurance tour was to the Philippines, perhaps the place most in need of reassuring. Long-suffering at the hands of Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, Manila was relieved that Obama’s statement that “…nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace, to have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected”, was supported by a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The new defence pact gave US forces greater access to patrol Philippine waters, and though US forces have eschewed basing rights, it is likely that both Japan and the United States will work to increase coast guard and naval Philippine capabilities.

The real question of course, is how did Obama’s reassurance trip affect China? What has the balance does to deter China from seeking to forcefully change the status quo? The answer to that is unfortunately ‘not much’, as can be seen by Beijing’s establishment of an oil rig in Vietnamese waters in the days following Obama’s return to Washington. There is very little self-awareness amongst the Chinese leadership and that in itself is most worrying. Relying on ‘the century of humiliation’ narrative, China’s media continues to defend expansionism from US ‘bullying’. If rebalancing to Asia does not deter China, what policy should replace rebalancing? “How do we deal toughly with our banker”, as Hilary Clinton once asked. What policies should the US adapt after a future Sino-Vietnamese naval conflict. The US and other regional states have oft told themselves that China cannot be contained, and that is probably true, but it can be restrained. It is really a question of making Beijing pay an economic and political price for its aggressive actions towards US allies. What comes after ‘rebalancing’? What indeed.


Law Not War in the South China Sea

The Diplomat, Nov 23, 2011

Years of school-taught nationalism has complicated efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea dispute. Time to try the legal route.

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The recent APEC and ASEAN summits in Honolulu and Bali, respectively, saw renewed efforts to solve the South China Sea issue using a regional diplomacy-based approach. Tensions around the conflicting claims over various islands and maritime space have grown since 2009, when China, Vietnam and Malaysia formally submitted their claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China’s apparent willingness last year to use new naval and air assets to demonstrate support for its claims – and the reaction this sparked from claimants Vietnam and the Philippines – has pushed regional tensions to new heights. Yet the limited diplomatic gains of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation and Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits in tackling this issue underscore the shortcomings of the strategies employed by regional states.

Broadly speaking, there have been four main strategies:

The first has been to attempt to negotiate at the bilateral level. China has repeatedly indicated its preference for this method, but disparities in size and economic influence mean that this approach is widely seen as heavily weighted in Beijing’s favor by the other claimants. Furthermore, there are suspicions that China’s intention is merely to negotiate a freeze on resource development in contested oil fields, rather than to compromise on sovereignty issues. On the other hand, the bilateral channel has been used to good effect to reduce bilateral tensions, as seen by Vietnam’s recent six-point agreement with China, which established a few new mechanisms for consulting on border issues.

The second strategy has been to try take the issue to a variety of regional fora and solve it at a multilateral level, where states feel China’s advantages of scale are more muted. ASEAN has been the main organization chosen, and for many in the region, this is one of its most formidable tests of whether it can handle regional security issues. But the diversity of interests, the strength of the ASEAN way, and the fact that only four ASEAN states out of ten are involved in the South China Sea issue has meant that an ASEAN solution remains – as yet – out of reach. China’s ability to detach Burma, Laos, and at times, Indonesia from Vietnamese and Philippine positions reveals the weakness of such an approach.

A third strategy has been to develop closer diplomatic and military relations with the United States. With 36 attack submarines and six carrier groups in the Pacific, the United States remains the predominant military force in the region, and states like Vietnam and the Philippines have sought strategic reassurance through new or renewed military agreements with Washington. Vietnam’s nuclear and military medical agreements are largely seen in this light, as is Clinton’s visit to Manila following the APEC summit, where she reaffirmed the U.S. defense commitment to the Philippines in the Manila Declaration and announced the delivery of another coast guard cutter to the Philippine navy.

Moving away from its previous position of non-involvement over the issue, the United States has increased engagement with both states, for a number of reasons. First, the U.S. is concerned with the larger implications on international maritime law of China’s claims, particularly the “U-shaped line.” Second, the prospect of potential Chinese control over these vital sea lanes of communication (SLOC) for North East Asian allies like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea makes U.S. policy makers uneasy. China’s willingness toblock resources as part of political pressure has already been demonstrated during the Senkaku fishing boat incident in September 2010. For Manila and Hanoi, these new ties with the United States are simultaneously a hedge against Chinese military assertiveness as well as a form of pressure on Beijing to compromise at the diplomatic fora.

But as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s speech to ASEAN leaders at Bali indicates, China has recently adopted a softer tone, indicating that it’s willing to seek a peaceful resolution to the disputes, promising massive investment to the region. Still, Wen also warned against involving foreign powers in the disputes. While this is widely read to mean the United States, it’s also meant to include other powers.

For ASEAN powers have also used a fourth strategy – internationalizing the issue by involving non-regional states like India and European powers in the exploitation of carbon energy resources in disputed waters. India’s recent agreement with Vietnam to carry out joint development of a gas field in Chinese-Vietnamese disputed waters falls into this category, and India’s state owned ONGC joins a number of other foreign companies already involved in Vietnam including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP and Zarubezhneft.

All this means that the only strategy that hasn’t really been seriously tried by any of the claimants is to utilize the various international legal mechanisms that have been developed for precisely these types of disputes – the arbitral tribunals under the jurisdiction of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). China has, of course, repeatedly rejected efforts to legalize the disputes, recently dismissing a Philippine request to take their disputes to ITLOS. This fact is often cited by regional experts as the reason why there’s a preference for attempting an ASEAN-based diplomatic solution.

The problem with attempting a diplomatic solution is the reaction any concessions would prompt with the populations of various states. Take, for example, Chinese public opinion on the U-shaped line. According to public opinion polls, there’s near-universal support among China’s public for its claim over this large area, with little understanding of the principles of contemporary international law, continental shelves, or exclusive economic zones. Instead, Chinese public support for these claims has developed through the education system, where Chinese students are taught that Chinese authority over this area extends back to the Chin Dynasty. Despite the weakness of historical claims, they have a strong hold over the imagination of the public and this support makes it impossible for any Chinese government to make concessions on what are considered issues of sovereignty. Compromise in this situation would be perceived as a betrayal of national sovereignty, and this isn’t just a Chinese problem. The utilization of legal bodies, however, neatly sidesteps this problem, by placing the responsibility of the decision with a third party. Furthermore, legal decisions are made according to principle in an open and transparent way, unlike diplomatic maneuvering.

Throughout history, state-on-state disputes have traditionally had two potential solutions: military or diplomatic. The Melian Dialogue in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War states the infamous dictum that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” While it remains true that global international relations are still fed by disparities in state size and power, the current global order seeks to assuage those disparities with different types of economic, political, and dispute settlement mechanisms.

While it’s true that China has refused to utilize these dispute settlement bodies, the simple fact of the matter is that they aren’t a popular option with the other claimants in the region. There is, for cases taken to the ITLOS, no right of appeal although in some cases, ITLOS will reconsider or revise findings). This means that once a case is decided, there is no recourse, and governments must accept the decision of the court. This is a singularly unappealing prospect to many of the governments in the region. However, it must be tried.

The current trend towards a Code of Conduct seems to be attempting to utilize the political, rather than the legal, but this is precisely why these mechanisms were created. It seems dangerous and pointless to continue pursuing diplomacy over an issue with such national sensitivities, in which movement is unlikely on either side. Diplomacy in this instance will only serve to freeze the conflict for a generation or more, making any possible chance at a legal solution a more and more distant possibility.

Given the high stakes, it’s imperative that the region collectively push for the legal route. While it’s true that China is initially unlikely to shift its opposition to using dispute settlement bodies, it may well do so if ASEAN pursues this policy with unity. Furthermore, ASEAN and Chinese leaders could provide funds for workshops and seminars on international law for both their diplomats and their universities, and attempt to soften public perceptions over the decade or so that the legal process would take.

A ruling by a neutral body, while unpopular, is less likely to cause problems between a state and its populace, which is certainly a major factor in state approaches to this issue. This approach would also make a significant impression on international society, and renew the legalization of international relations that seems to have been put on hold since 2001. It should be remembered why this process began in the first place. History teaches us that human political units unconstrained by law, traditionally resort to various applications of power, soft and hard. While the application of power is and will remain a central process in global politics, it’s not our only process.

The application of principle and the subordination of self-interest to legal principles are other newer options. In this case, they may be the only solution that has a chance of public acceptance. Leaders in the region would do well to note this.


South China Sea Tensions Rattle China’s Neighbours

BBC East Asia Editor, Charles Scanlon

A Chinese frigate sits berthed in Shanghai on September 22, 2011.

China’s growing naval power has encouraged it to be more assertive

Chinese leaders like to talk about their country’s “peaceful rise” – and Europe’s financial traumas are giving Beijing plenty of scope to assume the role of a benign new force on the world stage.

President Hu Jintao has presented himself as a “friend in need” during encounters with European supplicants while stopping short, for now, of committing China to a specific contribution.

But China has been showing a very different face to countries closer to home in an increasingly tense confrontation over rival claims to the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea.

It is a region where the peaceful nature of China’s rise is starting to be questioned as it pushes a long-standing maritime claim that stretches deep into South East Asia.

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If these countries do not want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sound of cannons”

Global Times

“China is becoming much more confident in the region and there are signs it is becoming giddy with success. It has become much more influential much more quickly than it expected,” says Dr Kerry Brown of the Asia Programme at Chatham House in London.

Vietnam and the Philippines in recent months have seen the snarl of a resurgent regional power that is fast losing patience with the gripes of smaller neighbours over maritime borders.

“If these countries do not want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sound of cannons. It may be the only way for the dispute in the sea to be resolved,” said the state run newspaper, the Global Times, in a recent editorial.

Hard powerChinese officials have been more restrained in their comments, but foreign ministry spokesmen have issued a series of warnings about what they see as encroachments into Chinese waters.

Beijing says it does want a peaceful solution. But Vietnam and the Philippines say Chinese ships have stepped up harassment of vessels involved in oil exploration and fishing.

Vietnamese sailors patrolling on Phan Vinh Island in the Spratly archipelago June 14, 2011China’s stance on the South China Sea is making neighbours like Vietnam worried

“The growth of Chinese military spending is beginning to translate into hard power,” says John Hemmings, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute.

“This is the first major sign that a more confident Chinese grand strategy is emerging. It is in the South China Sea that there is a real risk of discord between the US and China.”

The disputes are about oil and gas reserves, lucrative fisheries and sea lanes that are crucial to the giant industrial economies of East Asia. But they also point to a strategic contest with the United States, which has been the dominant military power in the western Pacific since 1945.

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China is driven by a nationalistic agenda – it won’t find it easy to make compromises over what are seen as crucial resources, such as energy in the South China Sea”

“China has a containment mindset,” says Kerry Brown. “It thought that the United States was ceding influence but it sees the US is still active all around its borders from Afghanistan to Japan.”

In the latest incident, Beijing responded sharply to an announcement by the American company, Exxon Mobil, of a new oil find off the coast of central Vietnam.

It appears to be well within Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. But China issued a now familiar warning that it has indisputable sovereignty to large parts of the sea.

“We hope foreign companies do not get involved in disputed waters for oil and gas exploration and development,” said a foreign ministry spokesman.

Vietnam vulnerableChina’s maritime claim is ill-defined but it resembles a giant U shape extending for more than 1,000km (621 miles) off its southern coast and reaching into what Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei see as their own waters.

It recently warned Indian firms to stay away after they signed exploration agreements with Vietnam. India has nettled its giant neighbour by developing a “strategic partnership” with Vietnam – in China’s view an intrusion into its own backyard.

Vietnam appears most vulnerable. Its leaders have been stung into an unaccustomed flurry of foreign visits as they seek help from the region and beyond.

“Vietnam feels out on a limb,” says John Hemmings. “It understands that a naval conflict with China could be over very quickly. The Vietnamese are much more exposed than they first thought.”

Vietnamese anti-China protesters marching in Hanoi on 24 July 2011, remembering Vietnamese soldiers killed by the Chinese in the South China Sea.

The South China sea dispute raises intense passions in Vietnam. Some believe it will be very hard for China to back down.

“China is driven by a nationalistic agenda, It won’t find it easy to make compromises over what are seen as crucial resources, such as energy in the South China Sea,” says Kerry Brown.

Whatever its intention, China has succeeded in frightening traditional US allies such as Japan and South Korea firmly back into the American fold, along with a host of new suitors.

US officials have tried to underline their commitment to the region, at a time when some allies are questioning Washington’s staying power.

US naval mightIt will be years before China’s growing military power can challenge the overwhelming naval might of the United States, backed as it is by a network of military bases across Asia.

But China’s development of new land based missiles designed to target aircraft carriers is a sign of its fast-growing capabilities.

“I want to make very clear that the United States is going to remain a presence in the Pacific for a long time,” said the defence secretary, Leon Panetta, on an Asian visit late last month “If anything, we’re going to strengthen our presence in the Pacific.”

President Barack Obama is expected to underline this commitment when he hosts Asian leaders at the APEC conference in Hawaii this month.

China may have found in the South China Sea dispute an arena to test US resolve and attempt to nudge it out of the region.

If Washington fails to live up to its rhetoric, China’s smaller neighbours will have little choice but to accept the new realities of what the US itself is calling the “Pacific Century”

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China binds itself in East Asia

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July 19th, 2011

China has very successfully created new security ties over the last year.

The only problem is that most of these new relationships have been created because of China, rather than with China. Beijing is on the outside looking in. In the wake of Chinese naval and diplomatic assertiveness in the South China Sea during 2010, a number of states in the region have begun developing closer diplomatic and security links to the United States and with other powers in the region.

On 17 June, Vietnamese and American officials met in Washington for a political, security and defence dialogue, where the two pledged to work towards a ‘strategic partnership’, and affirmed the need to protect the freedom of the seas. In the same week, the Philippines garnered ASEAN diplomatic support for ‘a peaceful resolution’ of maritime disputes according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, while also seeking US defence guarantees as outlined in the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty. In a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Philippines Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario gained assurances that the US would defend the Philippines in any conflict with China over disputed islands. Indonesia, the region’s second largest power — and one without direct claims — has intervened diplomatically, contesting Chinese claims in a letter (covered in the Economist) to a UN Commission this summer.

And the South China Sea is not the only place where states are banding together diplomatically against China. This year has seen a remarkable phenomenon in Northeast Asia. South Korea has drifted towards a trilateral security relationship with the US and Japan. In a Trilateral Statement made this December, the three countries pledged to build ‘strong, productive, and constructive relations with China’, while also ‘maintaining peace, prosperity, and stability in the region … and promoting and protecting freedom, democracy, and human rights worldwide’. Long-considered by US alliance managers in the region, the possibility of a Trilateral ROK-US-Japan Alliance coming into shape is almost entirely Beijing’s doing. China’s unwavering support for Pyongyang over the Choenan sinking and Yeonpyeong artillery incident destroyed years of accumulated Chinese diplomatic capital in Seoul. Furthermore, the inability of Beijing to control nationalist elements in the PLA Navy pushed Tokyo away from the pan-Asian aspirations of Prime Minister Hatoyama.

While Chinese analysts are more than willing to use these developments as proof that the United States has somehow connived to contain China, the simple truth is Washington couldn’t have achieved this without Beijing’s help. What exactly has happened to the once-vaunted notion of soft power with Chinese characteristics? If this reappraisal of Chinese diplomacy is due to US efforts, it would stand as one of the most successful diplomatic campaigns in history. But it’s not quite true. In reality, China has lost a measure of control over the execution of its foreign policy to the PLA, to the Ministry of Fisheries, and to erratic individuals like helicopter pilots and fishing boat captains. China has, by its own admission, jettisoned the ‘peaceful rise’ of Deng Xiaoping but has not decided on a clear replacement. In the absence of a clearly defined policy, Beijing is being impelled by internal forces along a bellicose path previously marked by every rising authoritarian regime in history. Up until 2008, Chinese planners seemed smarter than that, and seemed determined to avoid the mistakes of history.

The year 2012, with its leadership changes across Asia, and the continued rise of tensions over maritime border disputes, will be critical. As one of the greatest success stories in human history, one hopes that China will realise how critical this year is and change course before it’s too late.


The Potential for Sino-US Discord in the South China Sea

The RUSI Journal, April 2011

For China, the South China Sea is an integral part of its political and economic strategy and wellbeing. Yet its increasingly bold territorial claims there have raised tensions with neighbouring states, as well as the US – the architect of the region’s security order. Legal wrangling and military confrontation over the last year show that, rather than Taiwan or Korea, it may be the issue of the South China Sea that inflames Sino–US tensions.

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