The South China (West Philippine) Sea tensions will again come up in the 26th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit on April 27-28 in Kuala Lumpur and the resort island of Langkawi. Amid the usual flurry of controversy, now stirred by China’s reclamation and building in disputed areas, a reality check is in order.
Reality No. 1: China will not sign a binding Code of Conduct that limits its force deployment in the South China Sea with no effect on America and Japan.
Enacting a binding Code has long been Asean’s goal, and China went along for some years, even hosting meetings on the draft pact. But it was always iffy whether Beijing would accept a pact restricting its military deployment with no effect on non-signatories America and Japan. Especially with a huge portion of Chinese trade, including four-fifths of oil imports, passing through that vital sea vulnerable to naval interdiction.
Making Beijing even more reluctant to sign the Code is increasing US military deployment. Washington’s Pivot to Asia policy aims to shift 60 percent of naval assets to the region. And under last year’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines, many more American warships, submarines and aircraft can operate in the country, well within cruise missile range of not only Chinese shipping, but China itself.
In addition to these security concerns about the US Navy are, of course, China’s territorial claims. Chinese encroachments paused somewhat after its 1995 takeover of Mischief Reef. In the 2000s there were moves toward joint undertakings among rival claimants, leading to the China-Philippines-Vietnam seismic survey in 2007.
But rivalry intensified since 2011, with confrontations over Scarborough and Ayungin Shoals, plus Sino-Vietnamese frictions over oil exploration in the Paracel Islands. Now, with the Philippines suing China in the United Nations over maritime claims, and the US expanding its naval deployment, China has even more reason to build up facilities, especially those near the Philippines.
China may agree to the Code at some point, when it has enough sea structures for its security needs. Other factors that may make Beijing amenable are a more capable blue-ocean navy less dependent on outposts on the high seas; a reduction in American forces, especially those in the Philippines; and expanded land transport links to Southeast Asia under China’s New Silk Road plan, which would make the naval threat to seaborne trade less worrisome.
Reality No. 2: Asean will not take on China.
Under President Benigno Aquino 3rd, the Philippines has sought to get Asean confronting China over security issues. But there are strong reasons why the grouping will stick to its non-aligned stance which has been a core tenet since its inception in 1967, espousing the region as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality.
First, China has been good to Asean, for the past three decades, at least. Under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s reforms since 1978, Beijing stopped supporting Maoist rebels in Southeast Asia. It backed Asean in opposing Hanoi’s occupation of Cambodia in 1979, even mounting a brief war with its southern neighbor. And in 1990, diplomatic ties with Asean leader Jakarta, cut since a failed coup by Indonesian communists in 1965, were restored.
During the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis, while the West imposed stiff loan conditions, China provided unconditional support by not joining the regionwide currency devaluations, even if its competitiveness suffered. The following decade, Chinese trade, aid and investment in Asean trebled, helping recovery.
Second, in the South China Sea, where China has had conflicts with Vietnam and the Philippines, there have been moves toward amicable ways of dealing with disputes. As noted earlier, during the Arroyo administration, joint projects offered a mode of developing resources while downplaying rival claims.
Aquino too discussed joint exploration during his China visit in August 2011, but did not pursue it after his US trip the following month. Meanwhile, Vietnam and China, which have fought several battles since the 1970s, recently forged a pact on resolving issues.
Third, no country wants to make an enemy of the world’s emerging superpower, whose economic, geopolitical and military might would keep burgeoning for decades. Asean saw what happened to Cuba when it became an enemy of America for over half a century until US President Barack Obama ended hostile policies only last December.
In recent years, Asean got a further reminder of what it would lose by opposing China. It offered massive infrastructure financing through the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has attracted even US allies to sign up.
Amid all that, why would Asean deviate from its age-old neutrality? Indeed, not taking sides has been crucial to its clout, without which it would fragment into rival camps ruled and exploited by big powers.
Reality No. 3: The Philippines’ confrontational stance may end with Aquino’s term.
Even the Philippines may find its confrontational policy toward China ending when Aquino steps down on June 30, 2016. No top presidential contender has taken up his strong rhetoric.
One top contender favors joint exploration in disputed areas, noting that tensions prevent harnessing resources. Of the US alliance the presidentiable noted that the Mutual Defense Treaty does not guarantee military action to defend the Philippines, unlike the NATO pact protecting Europe.
With the looming presidential change, the Americans recently offered advanced weaponry. But no amount of firepower can justify the EDCA pact exposing all of the archipelago to attack, due to the presence of US forces threatening China. Especially since those forces have never ever helped in our territorial frictions.
Under new leadership, the Philippines can improve relations as Vietnam has done. And if EDCA is scrapped, China may agree to limit its expanded island facilities to peaceful uses like scientific study, maritime relief, and tourism.
Until then, sit tight, and don’t fan the flames if troublemakers light new fires.