29 February 2020
While Cambodia's Soeung Rathchavy agreed with China that maritime disputes are bilateral issues, she also suggested that they are a matter for the courts. Photo:
While Cambodia's Soeung Rathchavy agreed with China that maritime disputes are bilateral issues, she also suggested that they are a matter for the courts. Photo:

China at risk of being viewed as an outsider

Sino-American relations are poised to worsen despite another summit meeting between the two leaders being planned for September, President Xi Jinping having accepted President Barack Obama’s invitation of a state visit.

The China-specialist academic community in the United States and the Obama administration are adopting an increasingly hard-line position toward China, the Pentagon apparently proposing air and sea patrols in the South China Sea in the vicinity of artificial islands being created by Beijing.

The Council on Foreign Relations, the leading US international-affairs think tank, recently issued a “special report” that said American efforts to “integrate” China into the international order have resulted in “new threats to US primacy in Asia”.

The report, written by Robert Blackwill, a former ambassador to India who is now a senior fellow at the council, and Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls for a “new grand strategy” aimed at “balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy”.

In plain language, it is calling for containment to replace engagement, which has been American policy ever since then US president Richard Nixon visited China in 1972.

The report asserted that China’s goal was to “replace the United States as the primary power in Asia”.

Although the report does not represent the council’s official views, the more than 40 study group members behind the report constitute a stellar cast and include many former officials who have dealt with China, including a former deputy secretary of state, a former secretary of the navy, a former chief of naval operations, retired diplomats and senior figures from think tanks, academia and the media.

Meanwhile, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is considering challenging Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea by dispatching air and sea patrols into the vicinity of China’s artificial islands.

On Wednesday last week, David Shear, an assistant secretary of defense, declined to comment on the Journal’s report at an open hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Assistant secretary of state Daniel Russel said at the same hearing, “No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can’t manufacture sovereignty.”

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea does not recognize either submerged reefs or artificial islands.

China responded quickly to the possibility of American action.

A foreign ministry spokesman said freedom of navigation in the South China Sea “does not mean that foreign military vessels and aircraft can enter one country’s territorial waters and airspace at will”, making clear the extent of China’s claims despite the clear wording of the Law of the Sea.

At a joint press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry over the weekend, Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that China’s determination “to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock”.

Kerry was in Beijing to discuss arrangements for Xi’s visit to Washington and for the annual economic and security dialogue to be held in the United States next month.

Clearly, the Obama administration intends to continue with dialogue at the highest levels with China.

But there is suspicion within the US government of China’s motives and whether it can be trusted.

Congressional sentiment tends to be even more hawkish.

A key problem is that China refuses to accept international arbitration, which the Philippines has proposed and Vietnam has supported, to resolve disputes.

China also refuses to accept decisions of the International Court of Justice.

The only way acceptable to China is one-on-one negotiations, in which China, a military and economic giant, deals bilaterally with a much smaller, weaker neighbor.

Russel said there is “a wide array of mutually agreed third-party dispute settlement mechanisms, including recourse” to the World Court.

Interestingly Cambodia, China’s closest friend in Southeast Asia, broke ranks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last week.

Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Soeung Rathchavy backed China’s position and said territorial conflicts should be settled between claimants and not involve ASEAN as a group.

“ASEAN can’t settle this dispute,” she said. “We are not a legal institution; it’s the court that settles who’s right and wrong.”

Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue. But it sounds like China’s best friend in Asean also feels that Beijing should accept international judicial rulings.

Of course, China is too integrated into the global system for it to be considered a rogue state.

But if it continues to refuse to accept dispute settlement mechanisms and other international norms, it is going to be increasingly viewed as an outsider.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.