Face-Off: China vs. ASEAN in the South China Sea and Beyond

There are many reasons to be cautiously optimistic vis-à-vis the possibility that this year could mark a diplomatic milestone in the South China Sea disputes. Can ASEAN and China find common ground?

By all possible measures, 2014 was a roller-coaster year for East Asia, particularly for the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which have anxiously watched Beijing’s widening shadow of influence and territorial assertiveness across the region. China kicked off the year with a bang, introducing a second amendment to its fisheries law in Hainan, which placed additional restrictions on the freedom of movement of foreign fishing vessels, particularly Vietnamese nationals, in the South China Sea. 

This was followed by an intensified showdown with Filipino forces stationed at the Second Thomas Shoal, placing tremendous pressure on the United States to check China’s yet-another bold foray into a treaty ally’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Manila was gripped by panic, keeping in mind the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012, which ended up with Beijing taking full control of the disputed feature and shunning any joint-development/management arrangement with the Philippines.

The ultimate crisis, however, was sparked by China’s rash decision to dispatch a giant oil rig into Vietnamese claimed waters, precipitating the greatest diplomatic crisis between the two Communist countries in the post–Cold War period. Unwilling to allow Beijing further territorial gains, both Vietnam and the Philippines mobilized their diplomatic and military resources to put a lid on China’s salami-slicing strategy in the South China Sea. Vietnam went on the PR offensive, broadcasting videos of Chinese Coast Guard vessels violently confronting their Vietnamese counterparts, vehemently criticizing China in international platforms such as the United Nations (UN), and lobbying ASEAN to censure Beijing’s provocative actions. Hanoi’s efforts somehow paid off, prompting ASEAN to, quite uncharacteristically, indirectly criticize China’s actions, while Beijing eventually withdraw its oil rigs and reopened communication channels with its southern neighbor.

The Philippines also pushed back against China, moving ahead with filing a lengthy memorial (legal complaint) at the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague, broadcasting pictures suggesting expanding Chinese construction activities across the South China Sea, and soliciting maximum American support by signing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). In ASEAN, the Philippines pushed for a Triple Action Plan (TPA), which called on all claimant parties to, in accordance with the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), freeze construction activities and coercive actions in disputed areas, finalize a Code of Conduct (COC) and consider third-party arbitration, based on UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as the ultimate mechanism to resolve long-standing territorial disputes.

Unsurprisingly, China has refused to reconsider its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and has officially boycotted the arbitration procedures at The Hague by ignoring the December 15 deadline to submit its countermemorial. Towards the end of 2014, however, there were serious indications that China is committed to dial down tensions and revive diplomatic channels with its maritime neighbors, particularly Japan and the ASEAN countries. But there should be no room for complacency. China may be simply employing a temporary rollback of its aggressive rhetoric and actions in favor of maintaining a long-term strategic advantage in the South China Sea and the broader Asian theatre. With Malaysia—an active claimant state in the South China Sea, which has maintained robust and constructive relations with China—taking over the ASEAN’s chairmanship, there is a unique opportunity to decisively reassert the regional body’s centrality as an engine of integration and instrument of conflict-management in Asia.

Calibrated Escalation

Far from a monolithic expansionist power, China is a calculating and perceptive power, which has leveraged both its economic power—by some measures now the biggest economy on earth—and traditional diplomacy to reassert its historical leadership in East Asia. Beijing has pushed its territorial claims across East Asia, while preserving sufficient stability and diplomatic goodwill to preserve intraregional trade and investment networks, which have transformed China into a global manufacturing powerhouse. In short, the Chinese leadership wants to have its cake and eat it, too.