China’s peripheral diplomacy disaster

Like never before, China’s territorial assertiveness is rattling its neighbours and decades of fruitful relations.

A Chinese coastguard vessel passes near a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea [Reuters]
A Chinese coastguard vessel passes near a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea [Reuters]

We should strive to “promote China’s political relationship with peripheral countries, solidify economic bonds, deepen security cooperation and intensify cultural exchanges between China and peripheral countries,” declared Chinese President Xi Jinping in a keynote speech in 2013. 

Three years on, the South China Sea disputes are beginning to tear China and its Southeast Asian neighbours apart. After decades of relatively peaceful and economically beneficial relations among the Asian neighbours, festering maritime spats are undermining the fabric of regional integration.

S China Sea: Filipino activists raise national flag on disputed island

Eager to ameliorate regional territorial tensions, Malaysia earlier this year proposed a special meeting between Beijing and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

For many, it was time to have a candid and sincere conversation with China.

Fully fledged islands 

In less than three years, China has reclaimed 3,200 acres (1,295 hectares) of land across the southern portions of the South China Sea, building a sprawling network of civilian installations, airstrips and military facilities in the highly contested Spratly chain of islands.

Utilising cutting-edge geo-engineering, China has artificially transformed rocks and atolls into fully fledged islands that dwarf the naturally formed islands in the area.

READ MORE: New dawn for Philippine-China relations?

In less than two years, China singlehandedly reclaimed 17 times more than all other claimant states combined in four decades.

Having completely dominated the Paracel chain of islands in the northern portions of the South China Sea, China has begun to assert its dominance across the whole waterway.

Having completely dominated the Paracel chain of islands in the northern portions of the South China Sea, China has begun to assert its dominance across the whole waterway.

China has deployed an ever-larger armada of fishermen-cum-militia and coastguard forces as well as submarines and naval vessels to the area.

It has also stepped up aerial interception of foreign aircraft in the area, while stationing advanced military hardware, from surface-to-air-missile systems to high-frequency-radars, to its recently built artificial islands.

From Beijing’s point of view, the South China Sea constitutes its blue “national soil” so all of these activities are normal and justified. But that’s not how many of China’s neighbours see it.

Instead of diffusing tensions, however, the ASEAN-China special meeting ended up in a diplomatic disaster, exposing faultlines among Southeast Asian countries and the depth of the geopolitical crisis confronting the region.

Internal divisions

China’s smaller neighbours wished to communicate their growing concern over the former’s expanding footprint across contested waters and explore mutually acceptable measures to de-escalate territorial disputes.

Soldiers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy watch as the USS Blue Ridge arrives at a port in Shanghai [AP]

China also wished to smooth over its differences with smaller neighbours. But they were not necessarily of one mind.  

On the surface, the ASEAN is composed of friendly, small and peaceful nations with similar strategic outlooks and developmental priorities.

Scratch a bit below the surface, and one discovers a big divide among member states on critical issues such as the South China Sea disputes, which have deeply divided the regional body.  

The Philippines and Vietnam, which have been locked in bitter territorial disputes with China, are usually seen as the regional “hawks”.

In recent years, they have advocated for diplomatic pressure on China, stepped up security ties with America and Japan, and have considered legal action to address the maritime spats.

READ MORE: China’s regional isolation

Meanwhile, continental member states such as Cambodia and Laos have been generally seen as the “doves”, which have sought to dissociate the territorial disputes from overall relations with China.

Their heavy economic dependence on China greatly shapes their position on the issue.

In between are influential countries such as Indonesia and Singapore, which have sought to act as mediators between China and Southeast Asian claimant states.

Owing to China’s increasing assertiveness in adjacent waters, even the supposedly neutral states such as Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have moved closer to the position of regional hawks.

Difficult path ahead

These divisions were laid bare when the ASEAN foreign ministers spectacularly failed to agree on a joint statement after a supposedly candid and fruitful meeting with their Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.

Shortly after Southeast Asian countries released a strongly worded joint statement, which indirectly criticised China’s activities in adjacent waters and called upon claimant states to act in accordance to international law, the ASEAN scandalously retracted it without further notice.

It was not only a confusing episode, but also diplomatically embarrassing.

To Beijing’s consternation, however, Southeast Asian foreign ministers skipped a planned joint press conference with China, which hoped to release a proposed 10-point consensus statement that essentially sidelines the South China Sea disputes in regional discussions.

In short, the two sides couldn’t agree on anything. Also, the Southeast Asian countries couldn’t agree among themselves.

Some observers suspect that some overzealous officials in the Malaysian foreign ministry leaked the draft joint statement without seeking the permission of other member states.

For many others, China’s pressure on dependent neighbours such as Cambodia and Laos may better explain the retraction of the statement. Given the consensus-based decision-making structure of the regional body, unanimity is required before a statement is released.

In a recent speech, the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen fervently rejected allegations that his country supposedly bowed to China and called for the retraction of the joint statement, instead accusing some ASEAN members of “using Cambodia to counter China”.

He even went so far as to lash out at the Philippines’ pending arbitration case against China over the South China Sea disputes, dismissing it as a “political conspiracy between some countries and the [international] court”.

Like never before, China’s territorial assertiveness is rattling its neighbours and undermining decades of fruitful relations with smaller neighbours. The Southeast Asian countries will have to either hang together or risk falling apart. The future of the Asian security architecture is at stake.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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