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Stung by criticism that it is behaving aggressively in the South China Sea, Beijing appears to be going on the diplomatic offensive to persuade its neighbours that it is committed to peaceful negotiations, environmental protection and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

On March 23rd, Premier Li Keqiang, while on a visit to Australia, argued (rather implausibly) that China is not militarizing the disputed South China Sea and that defense equipment including missile batteries installed on artificial islands were “primarily” for civilian use. He also insisted that China’s main concern was to improve stability and security and ensure “freedom of navigation.”

On March 27th, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin called for the setting up of a new mechanism to boost cooperation in the South China Sea in such areas as disaster prevention, maritime rescue, environmental protection, biodiversity, scientific research and navigational safety. He said such cooperation would also enhance mutual trust in the region.

And, of course, China is making much of the ongoing negotiations with ASEAN on a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, holding it up as a tangible expression of China’s commitment to ASEAN and to the peaceful settlement of disputes.

Relentless pursuit

Viewed from a wider perspective, however, these moves appear to be little more than smoke and mirrors, a strategy of talking nice while actively altering the facts on the ground.

Contrary to the 2015 pledge made by President Xi Jiping that China would not militarize disputed islands in the South China Sea, China has been quietly installing weapons systems, building military grade harbours and runways, and expanding former reefs and outcrops into permanent military outposts. Latest reports indicate that even fighter aircraft have been deployed to some of these island bases.

On March 17th, China also announced it would begin construction of “environmental monitoring stations” (along with docks and other infrastructure) on a number of islands in the South China Sea including Scarborough Shoal, a reef approximately 198 kilometres from Subic Bay.

While it might sound innocuous, establishing any kind of facility on the shoal, which was forcibly wrested from the Philippines in 2012, further advances China’s claims. The Philippines Defence Secretary predicted that China would soon turn Scarborough Shoal into yet another fortified artificial island as it did on Mischief Reef (below) which was also forcibly occupied by China in 1995.

FILE PHOTO -  Still image from United States Navy video purportedly shows Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands

Satellite photos taken in March this year reveal that China has also begun construction of new facilities on the disputed Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam.

Further south, Chinese coastguard and fishing vessels continue to relentlessly encroach into the waters around Malaysian-owned Laconia Shoals ( Gugusan Beting Raja Jarun and Gugusan Beting Patinggi Ali), the latest incidents occurring in January and February this year.

At the same time, China continues to mull the introduction of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, in effect a declaration of sovereignty over the entire area.

Rhetorical subterfuge 

What all this means is that while China continues to insist on negotiations, dialogue and diplomacy, it is fast-tracking the construction of permanent facilities on as many islands, reefs and shoals as it can lay hold of, challenging the sovereignty of areas not presently under its control, and rapidly building up its military infrastructure in the South China Sea.

Its diplomacy is, in fact, shrewd rhetorical subterfuge designed to mask its aggressive territorial ambitions in the South China Sea while keeping ASEAN countries engaged in meaningless negotiations and preventing them from crafting a more united and effective response.

All this is, of course, not new. China has long declared the South China Sea a core national interest, one that is fundamental to its security and well-being. In both policy statements and by its actions, it has made it abundantly clear that it will not compromise on its claims to almost all of the South China Sea.

What is surprising, however, is the irrational and delusory response of countries like Malaysia and the Philippines whose sovereignty and future economic well-being is being directly challenged by China.

Muddled responses

In Malaysia, the ruling coalition is so keen to keep the spigot of Chinese investments, loans and projects open that it studiously looks the other way as Chinese warships, coast guard cutters and fishing vessels intrude into its waters and harass its fishermen.

China is so pleased with Malaysia’s head-in-the-sand approach that the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia recently urged the Philippines and others to follow Malaysia’s example in handling maritime disputes.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth, Manila, for its part, opted to play down the landmark ruling it won in the Hague last year that essentially rubbished China’s claims to much of the South China Sea based on its so-called nine-dash line (see map below). The tribunal ruled that Beijing’s activities within the Philippines 200 mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) including fishing and artificial island construction infringed upon Philippine’s sovereignty. It also implied that China’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoals was illegal.

2300southchina07xx

President Duterte, who rather naïvely believed that appeasement would somehow dissuade China from encroaching on Philippine territory was clearly taken aback by China’s plans to construct new facilities on Scarborough Shoal as well as reports of fresh Chinese activity around Benham Rise.

According to press reports, President Duterte has now instructed his armed forces to “assert Philippine sovereignty” by occupying and fortifying all Philippine-held reefs, shoals and islands in the South China Sea. He also ordered his military to “go there and tell them straight that this is ours….” It might be a case of too little too late.

Likewise, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam which were not parties to the arbitration but whose sovereign EEZ rights in the South China Sea have been strengthened by the ruling, opted to ignore it for the sake of good relations with China.

By cajoling timorous ASEAN leaders into distancing themselves from the Hague ruling, China managed to turn an embarrassing international setback into a victory of sorts.

Code of conduct

ASEAN now appears to be pinning its hopes on the COC to blunt China’s ambitions. It shouldn’t hold its breath.

China and ASEAN have been talking about a COC for almost 21 years. In the meantime, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea that was signed between China and ASEAN 15 years ago (which specifically included a commitment “to exercise self-restraint” and to refrain from occupying uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features)   has accomplished little.

The fact is China and ASEAN have always been talking at cross purposes – ASEAN is hoping that China will commit to self-restraint while China wants to talk about cooperation in general that will not in any way limit its actions. Furthermore, even as China negotiates a COC with ASEAN, it insists on treating South China Sea issues as a bilateral matter in order to deprive ASEAN of whatever collective strength it might have as a grouping.

It is hard to see how a meeting of minds is even possible under such circumstances. And yet,  ASEAN continues to indulge China with these meaningless games even as China moves rapidly to consolidate its position in the South China Sea. 

A stark reality

The stark reality is that ASEAN nations are now so dependent on China, and so hopelessly divided amongst themselves, that they have little room to manoeuvre. At this rate, the best that ASEAN can hope for in the South China Sea is limited fishing rights, joint resource exploitation when it suits Beijing, and some maritime cooperation to give the impression of shared sovereignty.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 10th April 2017]

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