At the end of April 2017, Asean’s member countries decided to seek a cooperative rather than a confrontational relationship with China. Some in the West and Asia complain that Asean has lost its legitimacy by backing away from challenging Chinese “aggression and militarization” in the South China Sea. However, from an economic and geopolitical perspective, that is the correct decision and should be applauded rather chastised because it serves the region’s national interests. Governments, be they supranational or national, exist to provide a peaceful and stable environment in which to improve people’s livelihood.
Establishing a collaborative and closer relationship with China in addressing issues such the South China sea territorial claims would be a far more fruitful and effective platform for promoting the region’s economic growth and security than buying outdated US and Japanese armaments and warships to participate in “freedom of navigation and overflight” operations. As has been shown, US “freedom of navigation and overflight” operations have neither deterred China from building more islands nor backed off from claiming the area within the “Nine Dash Line.” China, in fact, has built more islands and installed missiles on them, raising the risk of military conflicts.
One can always debate the legality of the “Nine Dash Line” or how the claims should be settled, but it should be in a forum agreed by both sides, not one that is pushed by outside powers who may harbor a dubious motive. The Chinese side seems to believe that the US and Japan want to block China from reaching the Indian Ocean and has nothing to do with freedom of navigation and overflight. China claims freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is more important to its economy than any others because it accounts for over 75% of the estimated US$5 trillion trade transiting through the waterway.
There were no assertive territorial disputes between China and some Asean members (Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei) before the then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced that the South China Sea is a US “national interest” in a speech at Hanoi in 2011.
Most analysts believe it was Clinton that influenced then-president Barack Obama to implement his “pivot to Asia” policy, employing 60% of US naval assets in the region. The increased US military presence emboldened the Philippines and Vietnam to assert their claims, aligning themselves with the US and Japan against China.
Whether China is the aggressor depends on whom one talks to, but open conflicts did not occur before Obama’s “pivot” to Asia policy.
The Philippines went further, taking action against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (which is not a UN judiciary organization as the Western and Japanese would have the world believe) in 2013. However, China rejected the non-enforceable arbitration award, dismissing its claims in the South China Sea (which was a forgone conclusion) as “illegal” and “inconsistent” with international law. Four of the five judges hearing the case were appointed by a Japanese jurist believed to have close ties to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There was also speculation that the cost of the arbitration, US$30 million, was paid by Japan.
The effects of confrontation
Confrontations brought only economic despair to the Philippines and Vietnam because both nations lost considerable agricultural exports to China. Philippines banana growers found their products blocked from entering China and Philippines fishermen were barred from fishing in waters within the “Nine Dash Line,” exacerbating their economic plight. China sent a rig to explore for oil in waters claimed by Vietnam and blocked Vietnamese lychees from entering the Chinese market.
Unsurprisingly, the West (the US in particular) and Japan complained of Chinese “aggression” and the “bullying” of its weaker neighbors, pointing to its use of economic leverage to punish its adversaries. But China countered that its consumers have the right to boycott opponents’ products.
Whether China is the aggressor depends on whom one talks to, but open conflicts did not occur before Obama’s “pivot” to Asia policy. Prior to 2012, there was no “freedom of navigation” issue. Fishermen from the Philippines fished freely within the disputed waters.
It should be pointed out that the “Nine Dash Line” was drawn by the Nationalist government in 1947 and was accepted by the US at the time. Negation of the claims by the US was said to have come only after the communists won the civil war. As far as China is concerned, it is only reclaiming its “inheritance,” which the country claims was stolen by European and Japanese imperialists up to the 2oth century. Not doing so would be “betraying our ancestors and future generations” as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it.
Asean-China economic relationship
Trade between China and the Philippines/Vietnam and other Asean countries was thriving because of the 2010 Asean-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA). Trade between the partners increased more than threefold, reaching over US$370 billion in 2016. China has become the number one destination for Asean exports, estimated at nearly US$200 billion in 2016. With its participation in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, the China-ASEAN economic relationship would expand.
In addition, China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Silk Road Fund and other Chinese investments would guarantee the realization of huge infrastructure and other investment projects within the ASEAN sphere. Chinese investment worth billions has already been pledged or committed to building roads and other infrastructure in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Asean should not be viewed as kowtowing to China
The Asean heads of state were only concerned with maintaining a stable environment in which to improve their people’s livelihood.
The Chinese government is not perfect, but it is responsible for the region’s robust economic growth. It has become Asean’s largest trade partner and an increasingly big investor. Indeed, the IMF predicts that Asia will lead the world in economic growth because of China.
Those who criticize Asean for not being “tough” on China is irresponsible. Encouraging the claimants to buy outdated US/Japanese weapons to defend themselves against China amounts to telling them to place confrontation over economic development and regional stability. To that end, it is unclear whether the critics are acting in the best interests of Asean.
The Asean is right in seeking a collaborative relationship with China. China’s proposals for joint development of and bilateral negotiations on settling the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are viable platforms in bringing peace and economic growth in the region.