The Coalition Against Chinese Hegemony
By Philip Bowring
30 November 2011
Manila -- Ownership of the islands, seabed resources and navigation rights in the South China Sea is now very much on the international agenda. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is more united on this issue than it has been for about a decade, and the U.S. is turning more attention diplomatically and militarily to the Pacific. Nevertheless, sustaining the coalition of interests disputing China's claimed hegemony over the sea will not be easy.
In fact, the wonder is that the Chinese leadership managed to get itself into this predicament by so clumsily arousing neighboring countries' fears. Having suffered constant Chinese provocations over the preceding few years, Hanoi used its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2010 to first bring the issue of Chinese aggression to the table. Vietnam and the Philippines encouraged the U.S. to make clear its own interest in freedom of navigation and settlement of territorial disputes according to international principles.
At that point Beijing could have backed off and allowed the subject to fade from view. Instead, the People's Liberation Army tried to punish Vietnam and the Philippines by harassing their exploration ships. Under the confident new administration of President Benigno Aquino, Manila responded with unprecedented vigor, carrying on exploration and offering new blocks for drilling.
Even this has not given China's nationalists second thoughts. Recently the Global Times newspaper, owned by the People's Daily, warned those who dispute Chinese claims to be "mentally prepared for the sound of cannons," a threat that was noted around the world.
There is a sense that China's provocations have been driven by the military, probably against the advice of its diplomats. If wiser heads among Beijing's civilian leadership can reassert control, they will re-adopt Deng Xiaoping's maxim about keeping a low profile. If so, China will tone down its rhetoric and offer economic benefits on a larger scale to increase its neighbors' dependence. It will likely quietly offer bilateral exploration deals which would divide the Asean claimants who are just starting to work together.
China has tried this before and nearly succeeded with Manila. Although the Philippines has relatively little reliance on China trade, its need for investment and pervasive corruption are vulnerabilities. The preoccupation of its armed forces -- who are anyway poorly equipped -- with insurgencies at home limits its ability to police the seas and protect exploration.
However, democracy can be a powerful force when it comes to protecting national interests. The Philippine public's determination to stand up to bullying can be stronger than that of elites with business deals with China or autocracies reliant on good relations.
Vietnam's nationalistic instincts are sure enough but Vietnam is still a relatively small and weak nation quite dependent on trade with China and likely to become more so. Good ties with India, Japan and Russia and emerging ones with the U.S. are an offset but China's threats have already deterred some exploration on the continental shelf.
China's efforts to divide the littoral states by pressing for bilateral negotiations have so far not met with success. But they could do so if Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei do not resolve their own differences. Significantly, China has refrained from overt threats against Malaysia even though oil and gas wells off Borneo are within its claimed territory. Malaysia in return has urged caution and cooperation with China. If Vietnam and the wider Malay world do not hang together they will surely be hung separately.
The difficulty lies in sacrificing some overlapping claims to form a united front. Vietnam claims all the Spratlys, the Philippines most but not all of them, Malaysia just a few, and Brunei only a couple of banks. Many of the islets, rocks and reefs lie outside their 200-mile exclusive economic zones and none qualifies for its own EEZ as none is capable of independently supporting permanent habitation.
Vietnam's claim is as successor to its French colonial rulers as well as Vietnamese imperial assertions and the legacy of the Cham trading kingdom which flourished in central Vietnam until about 1500. The U.S. never claimed the Spratlys but an independent Philippines did so on the basis of proximity and as part of the Philippine archipelago. Malaysia and Brunei make claims based on rights to the continental shelf off Borneo.
Compromise among these four countries, who together own two-thirds of the coastline, is essential to prevent China from establishing hegemony over Southeast Asia. If the Asean nations cannot agree among themselves they could ask the International Court of Justice for a ruling, as did Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia in previous island disputes. The court could also be asked to adjudicate the EEZ boundaries. China would object, but that would only underline its unwillingness to agree to arbitration based on the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention.
In the end, only leadership from Indonesia, the largest Malay state and the cornerstone of Asean, can resolve this conflict. It can do more to refute China's history-based claims, which ignore centuries of Malay trading across the sea a thousand years before the Chinese. And Jakarta can be the honest broker in finding a compromise to share resources that lie outside the EEZs of the claimants.
Vietnam, the Philippines and the other smaller states are never going to be able to remove China from the Spratly Islands that it now occupies, let alone the Paracels that it seized from Vietnam in 1974. But if they can maintain a common front with backing from Indonesia, they should be able to defend their interests in the South China Sea and their future sovereignty.