Key point: Historical enmities and different interests have kept America's Asian allies apart. They need to come together.
As China continues to exhibit assertive—and sometimes provocative—behavior toward the United States and the other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, tensions are gradually rising in and around the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS). However, Washington’s regional allies and partners—Manila, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo—possess a historic opportunity to enhance peace and stability in and around these troubled waters. By establishing a quadrilateral dialogue, they can facilitate mutual understanding of regional challenges as well as greater cooperation and collaboration; build more mutual trust and consensus; and develop an enduring forum and mechanism for strategic dialogue to manage tensions and maintain peace.
In 2008, the Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf reflected upon the “strange rise and fall” of the quadrilateral dialogue established by Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The dialogue quickly faltered, with observers arguing that it lacked a concrete agenda and raised fears of containment in Beijing. The experiment nevertheless “helped to cement awareness of the need for collaboration among those countries willing and able to address regional issues, like disaster relief or sea lane security, while confirming that such ventures” will ultimately prove “more sustainable if they are based on convergent interests and the ability to contribute rather than on supposed shared values.”
Following Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s May 20 inauguration and October 10 National Day speeches—in which she declined to endorse the so-called “one China” principle while pledging to pursue a consistent, predictable, sustainable and peaceful cross-Strait relationship—Beijing is intensifying diplomatic and economic pressure on Taipei in an attempt to decrease its international maneuvering space and compel it to accept China’s sovereignty demands. Beijing is vigorously attempting to isolate Taipei by calling upon foreign nations to deepen implementation of their “one China” policies, according to Beijing’s own strict interpretation. From forcing “Chinese Taipei” to participate in the World Health Assembly under a “one China” rubric, to successfully pressuring Cambodia, Malaysia, Kenya and Armenia to repatriate Taiwanese fraud suspects to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), to convincing Kyrgyzstan to deny visas to all Taiwanese citizens, to ensuring that Taiwan was denied an invitation to the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization conference, Beijing is making it clear that it will not tolerate “separatism.” Tsai has responded that the people of Taiwan will not back down to pressure: China must “face up to the reality” that Taiwan not only exists, but that its people “have an unshakeable faith in the democratic system.”
At the same time, leaders in Tokyo and Seoul have also expressed strong concerns over recent Chinese provocations. Two days after Chinese fighter aircraft conducted an unsafe intercept of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft operating in international airspace, on June 9 a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigate entered a contiguous zone (CZ) adjacent to the twelve-nautical-mile Japanese territorial sea around the Senkaku Islands. While Chinese Coast Guard vessels have periodically entered the CZ near the Japanese-administered Senkakus, this was the first time since 2004 that Beijing dispatched a PLAN warship into this disputed area. Exacerbating the matter, three Russian Navy vessels also sailed into the same CZ around the same time as the PLAN vessel, raising suspicions of coordination and speculation of a possible emerging alliance between Beijing and Moscow to challenge U.S. preeminence in the Asia-Pacific. China is also pursuing ongoing construction of two gas drilling rigs near the CZ median line, despite the fact that Beijing and Tokyo negotiated—but never implemented—a 2008 bilateral agreement to demarcate maritime boundaries. In early August, Chinese Coast Guard ships, accompanied by more than two hundred fishing vessels, entered the disputed waters around the Senkaku Islands, and one of China’s many oil platforms was found to have a military-grade surface radar installed on it. Four more Chinese Coast Guard vessels entered the disputed waters around the Senkakus on September 11, marking the first such incident since China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. On August 18, three Chinese strategic bombers trespassed into the overlapping area of China and South Korea's air defense identification zones (ADIZ) and approached the disputed Suyan Reef. Many observers saw this provocation as a show of force by Beijing, which continues to voice strong displeasure with Seoul's decision to place the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Tensions between Beijing and Seoul flared again on October 7, when a Chinese fishing boat rammed into and sank a South Korean coast guard vessel during a confrontation in the Yellow Sea. Finally, on October 12, Tokyo revealed that Beijing had restarted drilling at two gas platforms in the East China Sea, which brings the total number of explorational platforms to sixteen. Beijing’s actions came over one month following a meeting between Abe and Xi at the G-20 summit, at which both sides agreed that they should resume dialogue.
Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, over three months have passed since the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague handed down its historic and sweeping award on maritime entitlements in the SCS, which overwhelmingly favored the Philippines over China. As expected, Beijing refused to accept the PCA ruling, hardened its legal and diplomatic positions, and refrained (for now) from undertaking provocative actions aimed at changing the status quo. So far, China has responded with relative restraint. Beijing has not declared an ADIZ in the SCS, moved to begin reclamation at Scarborough Shoal, blockaded or removed the Philippine tank-landing ship BRP Sierra Madre from the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, sanctioned the Philippines, withdrawn from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or taken additional measures to further militarize its extant outposts in the Spratly Islands. China views its sovereignty over the SCS as unconditional, and the ruling came as a major blow to its domestic messaging and foreign-policy narratives as well as its sense of national pride. The result thus could have proven far worse for Manila and Washington.
At the same time, few in Washington could have predicted that the brash new leader of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte—nicknamed “Duterte Harry”—would pivot so dramatically away from the United States and toward China. Duterte met with Xi Jinping on October 20, during his first official trip abroad. The Chinese vice foreign minister announced that the two parties would recommit to “dialogue and consultation to properly handle the South China Sea issue,” marking “a new stage of maritime cooperation between the two countries.” An agreement to establish a joint coast guard committee may potentially lead to a bilateral modus vivendi in the South China Sea.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe consequently finds himself facing a delicate situation, whereby he must “promote the closely aligned security goals of Tokyo and Washington without pushing the Philippine leader deeper into Beijing’s embrace.” Following a new defense agreement signed earlier this year, Tokyo agreed on September 6 to provide Manila with two additional coast guard patrol vessels and loan it up to five surveillance planes. Duterte will likely find it necessary to maintain friendly relations with Japan, even as his relationship with the United States remains strained. Tokyo and Washington “share the same goal” in the Philippines, affirmed a Japanese Foreign Ministry official. Yet, present circumstances may require them to pursue different approaches, even as they “continue to share information and continue to work together.” There are some things, he added, that the Philippines can accept only when provided by Japan. Washington may increasingly find itself relying on Tokyo to serve as its proxy in Manila.
The United States has thus entered into a period of strategic risk and uncertainty, which shall likely continue through the first one hundred days of the next U.S. administration. Beijing is extremely likely to engage in further provocations to test Washington’s regional resolve and commitments as it seeks to challenge American preeminence.
Chinese diplomats and government officials will continue to pursue psychological warfare and aggressive regional and global public-relations campaigns—in line with the People’s Liberation Army’s “Three Warfares” concept—to influence international opinion, characterize the THAAD deployment as destabilizing, and delegitimize the jurisdiction and authority of the International Tribunal. Beijing’s ultimate goal is to effectively undermine Washington’s political, economic and security commitments to the region, which Chinese leaders believe would weaken the ability of Manila, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo to assert their own sovereign interests.
However, these regional actors are not helpless. They can push back against Beijing’s attempts to isolate and silence them by deepening communal cooperation and exchanges. There is consequently an imperative for a Quadrilateral Track 1 Dialogue—comprising Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan—to manage growing tensions in the East and South China Seas. The purpose of the dialogue is to enhance mutual understanding of regional challenges, find additional opportunities for collective cooperation and collaboration, build more mutual trust and consensus, and develop an enduring forum and mechanism for strategic dialogue to manage tensions and maintain peace. Proposed strategic engagement will focus on problem-solving activities aimed at strengthening multilateral relationships and encouraging new thinking. This approach may not only inform and influence other regional dialogues, but also potentially fill gaps between them.