Posts Tagged ‘southeast asia maritime’
Earlier this week, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China reportedly agreed on a preliminary set of guidelines for a code of conduct in the bizarre territorial irritant that is the South China Sea. The event set off the usual half-full, half empty debate over the management of territorial disputes, of which there are several.
Some viewed it as a step in the right direction that will build confidence and hopefully help mitigate skirmishes when they arise. On the other hand, others complained that it falls well short of a fully implemented legally binding code of conduct, which Beijing is still unwilling to enter.
Both sides are right, but, more importantly, it is difficult to see another way to resolve these territorial disputes. The claims of the countries are more rooted in fierce nationalist impulses than any verifiable commercial interest. In any case, the use of force would impose such a high cost for an uncertain benefit that can probably only be maximized through cooperation rather than conflict. The pattern of skirmishes and claim-staking is thus likely to continue, with periods of heightened tension followed by greater urgency toward but only limited progress on negotiation.
But, most important of all, as The Asianist has pointed out before, threats are perceived or constructed through an assessment of both intentions and capabilities, which are in turn based on a combination of perception and reality. Threat perception is also somewhat distorted in an asymmetric relationship such as that between ASEAN and China, because as Brantly Womack has argued, the bigger power expects deference from the smaller power, and the smaller power wants the larger power to understand its vulnerabilities.
In this case, Southeast Asian countries looking at China have little reason to feel secure. While many other elements of the ASEAN-China relationship have been remarkably successful, progress on the South China Sea issue has been painfully slow, even if (even ASEAN officials will admit) there was some movement by China leading up to the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct. For China, as one commentator recently put it:
[The] policy isn’t to negotiate on the issue of sovereignty, but rather to maintain its stance that (a) sovereignty belongs to China, (b) the claimants should shelve the sovereignty disputes and, (c) the claimants should jointly develop the resources with China. Therefore, by ‘negotiation,’ China only means negotiation on temporary arrangements, not negotiation on the issue of sovereignty.
That may seem like a convenient way to minimize disputes over territories that could serve as triggers of nationalism. But to Southeast Asian countries, this is insufficient today because they are uncertain about China’s rise tomorrow. How can they have confidence that a much stronger China in a decade will be as willing to accept ‘dispute-shelving’ as it is now? Given China’s feverish military build-up, expansive claims, preference for bilateral dispute resolution mechanisms and refusal to settle claims by international law (Beijing rejects the Philippines’ call to take the dispute to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea), it is not difficult to understand the sense of threat ASEAN nations feel.
Chinese officials might lay down their maps and insist that their claims are legitimate (and so might ASEAN nations), but that is not the point. Southeast Asian vulnerabilities persist, and China must address or at least manage them not because the world says so, but because it is in Beijing’s own interest to mitigate mistrust and further an otherwise blossoming relationship with ASEAN. The best way to do this is not just through chanting slogans of “peaceful rise”, but by building confidence through multilateral means.
Progress made this week was a small step in this regard, and both sides deserve credit for that. But there is still a long road to managing this asymmetric relationship, and enough room for accidents to occur.