China’s Diplomatic Offensive: Consequences for Regional Relations

Shiraishi Takashi [Profile]

[2012.08.23] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

China’s Diplomatic Offensive Blocks ASEAN Statement

From July 9 to 13, 2012, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held a meeting of its foreign ministers and a series of related gatherings in Phnom Penh. But for the first time since the association’s formation in 1967, the foreign ministers’ meeting did not produce a joint communiqué. This was because the ministers were unable to agree on wording with respect to the increasingly sharp territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where the claims of some ASEAN members, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, overlap those of China. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa subsequently held consultations on this matter with other parties, including the foreign ministers of Cambodia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and on July 20 ASEAN managed to present a united front with the release of a statement setting forth six basic principles for the resolution of such disputes, including the prompt formulation of a code of conduct for the South China Sea and respect for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But for countries like the Philippines and Vietnam that are involved in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, the utility of ASEAN as a tool for leverage in support of their positions has definitely been severely impaired.

Over the months preceding the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting and related gatherings in Phnom Penh this July, China lobbied Cambodia, this year’s holder of the association’s rotating chairmanship, very aggressively to keep the discussions of the South China Sea issues from turning caustic against it. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Cambodia just before the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh this April and offered a package of grants and concessional loans totaling 450 million yuan (about $70 million). The following month, National Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, visiting on the occasion of the ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting, signed a document on the provision of 120 million yuan (about $19 million) in grants and other assistance to Cambodia. And in June, He Guoqiang, the eighth-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee and secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, met with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh and signed papers for $420 million in lending and the grant of two aircraft. The July meeting’s inability to agree on a joint communiqué can be attributed directly to this Chinese campaign. On July 10, the day after the ASEAN foreign ministers met, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi thanked Cambodia for respecting China’s “core interests.” He was presumably satisfied with the results of his government’s efforts.

The Regional Significance of China’s Maneuvering

What significance does this Chinese diplomatic offensive have for international relations in East Asia?

In the short term the outcome is clearly a success for China. Ever since the July 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, this and other “ASEAN+” forums have served as convenient sources of leverage for countries like the Philippines and Vietnam in their South China Sea disputes with China. It was because of this that China agreed at the November 2011 ASEAN-China summit to commence talks aimed at drawing up a legally binding code of conduct regarding the South China Sea issues. At the ASEAN-China foreign ministers’ meeting this July these talks were put off. In other words, as a result of China’s campaign, ASEAN has ceased to work as a source of leverage for those disputing China’s territorial claims.

It is hardly likely, however, that this development will cause the Philippines and Vietnam to accept China’s position that the territorial disputes should be resolved bilaterally, without the involvement of third parties. And it is inconceivable that they will acquiesce in the face of China’s power and yield to that country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, along with its assertions regarding exclusive economic zones and its continental shelf. If ASEAN cannot provide the leverage they seek against China, they will look for other sources of support.

Since last year the United States has been participating in the East Asia Summit. Also, the US government has made the strengthening of its capabilities in the Asia-Pacific a key plank of its new defense strategy. Speaking in June 2012 at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a conference organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta revealed that the United States intended to boost its military presence in the region by reposturing its naval forces, currently split roughly 50/50 between the Pacific and the Atlantic, to a split of about 60/40 weighted toward the Pacific by 2020. The forces in the region are to include six aircraft carriers and littoral combat ships with antisubmarine capabilities.

The heightening of the US military presence in the region is highly welcome to countries like the Philippines and Vietnam that are at loggerheads with China in the South China Sea. And it is only natural that the Philippine government has started to consult with the United States on specific measures to beef up the two countries’ alliance, including use by US forces of bases within the Philippines and the stationing of US naval vessels. Defense Secretary Panetta also visited Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay this June and declared that the United States would help Vietnam enhance its defense capabilities.

Japan, meanwhile, is considering the provision of patrol boats and other support in order to strengthen the coast guard capabilities of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Defense cooperation between ASEAN member countries is also progressing. For example, the Philippine and Vietnamese navies have agreed to conduct joint exercises in the South China Sea. And Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are considering coordinated naval patrols to counter poaching in the waters around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

Shifting to an Asia-Pacific Framework for Regional Security Cooperation

In this light, it seems reasonable to offer the following assessment: China had a resounding success with its campaign to put an end to the use of ASEAN as a source of leverage against its territorial claims in the South China Sea, as seen in the outcome of the July foreign ministers’ meeting. So if ASEAN hopes to remain in the driver’s seat of regional cooperation in East Asia, it will need to reinvent itself. If it cannot make headway in the field of security cooperation, it will have to achieve greater results in the field of economic cooperation. In other words, the move to establish an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 will become all the more important.

Meanwhile, if ASEAN cannot provide the leverage they seek, not only the Philippines and Vietnam but also countries like Indonesia can be expected to seek it elsewhere, turning to the United States, Japan, Australia, and India for balance against China. As is only natural, to the extent that China turns into a threat, the Asia-Pacific framework for regional cooperation will become more useful for risk hedging than an East Asian framework. For most of the 1990s Asia-Pacific cooperation was the watchword, with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum providing the framework. But partly because of Washington’s unsympathetic response to the 1997–98 Asian economic crisis, the decade of the 2000s brought a shift to East Asia as the principle focus of regional cooperation. This brought the ASEAN+ meetings into the forefront. I am not saying that this East Asian cooperation will end. The Chiengmai initiative, for instance, will remain important for currency cooperation. But I do think that China’s recent maneuvering will cause the Asia-Pacific framework to come to the fore in the area of regional security cooperation.

So, even if China’s maneuvering was successful over the short-term at the July ASEAN foreign minister’s meeting, it was an extremely shortsighted ploy. Since 2000 the Chinese have skillfully used the ASEAN+ framework to increase their heft in the region while excluding the United States. But now China has become the biggest threat to other countries in the region. Its handling of this matter clearly showed that its avowed policy of “building friendship and partnership with neighboring countries” is readily cast aside when it conflicts with the pursuit of its “sovereign” interests. The impact on international relations in East Asia will surely be far from negligible.

(Originally written in Japanese on August 7, 2012.)

  • [2012.08.23]

Received his PhD in history from Cornell University. Is now president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and president of the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization. He was an executive member of the Cabinet Office's Council for Science and Technology Policy from January 2009 to January 2013. His works include Teikoku to sono genkai (Empire and Its Limits) and Beyond Japan: The Dynamics of East Asian Regionalism (coeditor). Former editor in chief and currently senior editor of

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