ASEAN’s deepest security concerns center on China’s claim to three million square kilometers of the South China Sea and all the island formations on it.
This great inland sea—it extends from Taiwan to Sumatra and flows into the Gulf of Siam and the Java Sea—connects the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Its strategic sealanes carry nearly half of all global seaborne trade—vital not only to its coastal states but also to South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, China, Japan and Australia.
Submerged at high tide
The military intellectual Jose Almonte calls this area “Southeast Asia’s maritime heartland” and warns that “the power which controls it will ultimately control both archipelagic and peninsular Southeast Asia, as well as play a decisive role in the future of the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean.”
Brig. Gen. Almonte, national security adviser to President Fidel V. Ramos in 1992-98, authored a 1998 monograph arguing that the Philippine dispute with China over areas of the South China Sea “is not merely about islets, some of which disappear at high tide,” but about Southeast Asia’s long-term security.
From that privately circulated paper, I’ve lifted much of the data I cite here.
Seaborne peoples of Southeast Asia
Since the flooding of the Sunda Shelf 15,000 years ago, the South China Sea has been a maritime thoroughfare that bound the Southeast Asian peoples more closely to one another than to any outside influence, until the coming of the West in the 1600s.
To the Slives of its coastal peoples, it has been as vital as the slightly smaller Mediterranean to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, the Levant and North Africa.
Despite its contrary claims, China is a relative newcomer to the region. India, Ceylon and even the Arab world have had anolder and deeper cultural influence—manifest in the Hindu-Buddhist monuments of Borobudur in Java and Angkor in Cambodia; and in the Islamic heritage of both Indonesia and Malaysia.
Throughout much of its history, dynastic China had been turned inward, to the threat from Central Asia’s nomads. Chinese maps didn’t even include the Philippine archipelago until the tenth century.
The first traders from Mindoro reached Canton in 982; and sometime in 1171-72, tattooed Visayan raiders, riding the southern monsoon, struck at the Fukien coast from staging areas in the Pescadores off Taiwan. When the Spaniards took Manila in 1571, they found 150 Chinese residents in it.
A maritime economy
By then, linkages among the Southeast Asian principalities themselves were well advanced. From Srivijaya in Sumatra during the seventh to the eleventh century, down to Jolo (Sulu) in the 1770s, interconnected maritime cities mediated regional commerce.
Until the eve of our own time, Southeast Asia was a maritime economy. Its peoples harvested their surrounding sea for its sea cucumber, shark fins and mother of pearl for the markets of China and India. Only in the late 1800s did Southeast Asia become a “land economy”—when it began to grow rubber, abaca, sugar and palm oil for European industry.
Until now maritime habits pervade Southeast Asian cultures. We still call our basic political unit the “barangay,” after the plank-built sailing boats that brought our Malay ancestors to the archipelago. East Indonesian villagers regard themselves as a “boatload,” and in communal meetings arrange themselves as though out at sea, on a boat-shaped meeting place.
Faster than the possible
For much of this period, the Chinese Empire was self-sufficient, aloof—disdaining foreign contacts, until in the 1840s the western powers began (in Sun Yat-sen’s phrase) “slicing China like a melon.”
Now, making up for what it terms “150 years of humiliation at the hands of the great powers,”China is growing faster than the world had thought possible. After surpassing Germany as the largest exporter, it overtook Japan to become the second-largest economy. And all these in one generation: yet when Deng Xiaoping’s reforms began in the 1980s, China’s economy had been smaller than Italy’s and just about the same size as Canada’s.
I think it reasonable to assume China will become stronger proportionate to the United States during this next decade or so. (The Americans expect China to reach superpower status by 2025.) The Communist Party plans to move 250 million rural people to big cities over the next 12-15 years. If this mass movement succeeds, it should keep China’s GDP growth close to its Deng-era levels, broaden Beijing’s tax base and indulge military spending.
Already China is showing off its high-profile navy. In recent months its warships have helped rescue an ice-bound Antarctic expedition and aided a US laboratory ship destroying Iran’s chemical weapons.
Showing the red flag
Last July, five Chinese warships for the first time transited the East China Sea, entered the Pacific and circumnavigated the Japanese archipelago. Then Beijing’s first carrier battle group showed the red flag around the South China Sea.
In reply, the region’s states—except for our poverty-stricken country—are acquiring submarine fleets. Vietnam last month received the first of six Kilo-class subs it ordered from Russia.
Thailand is training crews with its potential suppliers, Germany and South Korea. Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia already have operational fleets. Jakarta plans to have 12 subs by 2020.
As China’s economic and technological capabilities mature, Beijing will demand more breathing space—some relaxation of the containing wall around its 6,000-kilometer border.
There will have to be some give in that issue, from the United States and its allies, as the balance of strategic power shifts with time.
Of the alternative arrangements at hand, Deng Xiaoping’s proposal to set aside the sovereignty issues and share the fisheries and mineral resources of the South China Sea is the easiest to organize. Over the medium term, such a deal could morph into a neutralization of the China Sea itself.
For Taiwan, a Hong Kong-SAR (special autonomous region) formula seems the eventual answer—perhaps with more self-government and for a longer period. That Kuomintang and Communist delegates have just held their first official talks since 1949 in Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime capital of Nanjing may mean something.
As for a live-and-let live deal between the two principals, it’s no secret that Washington is moving to Guam in the Marianas, on the eastern edge of the Philippine Sea, the focal point of its efforts to project power in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Guam is two day’s sailing to Manila for a carrier fleet.
The littoral states themselves will need to incorporate China in a regional security order that works, if they are to preserve the stability that has benefited them all so well. It should help that, since 2012, every Asean state—except for the Philippines—has been doing more business with China than with the United States.