Countering China in the South China Sea

Beijing is trying to divide its neighbors. They need to resist.

On March 18, officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet in Singapore to discuss steps towards an elusive code of conduct in the contentious South China Sea dispute. If the past is any indicator, China will ensure that such diplomacy will produce little significant progress even as it continues to coercively change realities on the ground in its favor. While cooler heads hope diplomacy will prevail, hope is not a strategy. Southeast Asian officials and other external partners like the United States and Japan need to use the full range of instruments at their disposal to persuade Beijing about the urgent need for a diplomatic solution, dissuade it from undertaking further destabilizing moves, and prepare for a range of crises in the absence of Chinese cooperation.

Since 2009, China has displayed a growing assertiveness towards ASEAN states in the South China Sea, using a combination of diplomatic, administrative and military instruments to impose unilateral fishing bans, harass vessels, and patrol contested waters. Despite the so-called ‘charm offensive’ by China’s new leadership in the region in 2013, Beijing’s conduct in the South China Sea has remained largely unchanged, with a new fishing law promulgated in January, invasive patrols and encroachments into waters of other claimants, and foot-dragging at talks over a code of conduct it finally agreed to discussing last year. Meanwhile, the specter of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea also continues to loom large. Yet, as former CIA senior analyst Chris Johnson told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year, unlike most other observers China’s leaders continue to see no contradiction between seeking better relations with Southeast Asia and assertively defending their sovereignty claims at the expense of other ASEAN claimants.

Given this, it is now up to ASEAN states and their partners to craft an integrated strategy in the diplomatic, legal and security realms geared towards both steering Beijing away from its assertiveness if possible, and preparing to counter it effectively should it continue or intensify. In the diplomatic domain, ASEAN states and other parties should continue to consistently emphasize the cardinal principle that all countries – including China – need to resolve their disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law. The principal means to reach this objective is a legally binding code of conduct. In spite of Chinese stalling, ASEAN states should remain united in insisting on both its speedy conclusion and meaningful content, including key mechanisms like a crisis management hotline.

While all ASEAN countries ought to be united in pursuit of a code of conduct, the four ASEAN states that have claims in the South China Sea – namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – should also take additional steps together given their greater stake in the issue at hand. The main objective would be to thwart China’s efforts to divide the ASEAN claimants (most clearly by isolating the Philippines) by banding together in spite of certain differences in their positions. Greater coordination looks more promising now than it did in the past, with the recent hardening of Malaysia’s stance along with the birth of the ASEAN Claimants Working Group Meeting held in the Philippines last month. Additionally, external actors beyond just the United States, including the European Union and Australia, need to do their part by speaking out against Chinese transgressions to raise the cost of noncompliance. A rules-based approach to resolving the disputes ought to be a shared global interest, and a greater coalition explicitly calling for this will help increase the pressure on Beijing without it being framed as just a U.S.-China issue.

Even if a code of conduct does come to pass, it will at best be a diplomatic tool to manage tensions in the South China Sea. The sustainable path to actually resolving them lies in the legal realm, with all parties codifying their claims in line with international law which could then open the door to shelving sovereignty disputes and initiating joint resource development. The burden here rests largely with China, whose deliberate ambiguity on the basis for its indefensible nine-dash-line claim submitted to the United Nations in 2009, which covers up to 90 percent of the entire South China Sea, is inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by any stretch of the imagination.