China’s divide-and-rule ASEAN strategy suffers grave setback

May 05, 2015 09:55
A handout picture released by the Philippine military shows structures being built by China on disputed islands in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

Last week, on the eve of an annual ASEAN summit meeting, Beijing warned the 10-nation grouping to “refrain from entangling itself” in rows with China, which risked “win-win cooperation” with the emerging superpower.

Maritime territorial disputes involving some Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines, should be dealt with by those countries on their own, the state news agency Xinhua asserted in a commentary. It warned the regional grouping not to allow the “firebrand” Philippines to destroy the ASEAN Community.

The commentary, issued on April 27, said that ASEAN’s “strategic statesmen” would not allow that to happen. “That trick is doomed,” it said.

The following day, ASEAN issued a stinging rebuke to China. In a “chairman’s statement”, the regional body said:

“We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability.”

The rotating ASEAN chairman this year is Malaysia, which has its own dispute with China but which is known as a moderate that eschews confrontation with Beijing.

But the chairman’s statement makes it clear that the Chinese strategy of divide-and-conquer has failed and ASEAN as a grouping is opposed to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, specifically, its claim to almost the whole sea and its land reclamation and the construction of air and sea military facilities that can be used by its military.

Satellite photographs showing China dredging sand and pouring it on semi-submerged reefs to create artificial islands to strengthen its territorial claims and project its power have clearly had an impact on Southeast Asian countries, which are all relatively weak militarily.

Accusing China of eroding trust and possibly undermining peace and stability goes further than anything the regional grouping has said previously. While ASEAN has no enforcement powers, it has strong moral authority.

“In this regard,” the statement continued, “we instructed our Foreign Ministers to urgently address this matter constructively including under the various ASEAN frameworks such as ASEAN-China relations, as well as the principle of peaceful coexistence.”

In what may well have been an attempt to prevent China from setting up an Air Defense Identification Zone covering the South China Sea – as it did in 2013 over the East China Sea – the statement added: “We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea.”

The ASEAN statement was a clear rejection of China’s contention that its quarrel was only with four member countries – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – and not with the group as a whole.

The Wall Street Journal reported that ASEAN’s secretary general, Le Luong Minh of Vietnam, said in an interview that the Southeast Asian nations could not accept China’s nine-dash line – which embraces about 85 percent of the South China Sea – to claim contested waters because it isn’t compatible with international law.

The April 27 commentary defended Chinese actions by saying that its construction of infrastructure would enable China to better fulfill its obligations in terms of maritime rescue, marine research and meteorological observation.

It called on Southeast Asian countries to keep their eyes on the “big picture” of integration and development, pointing out that China’s proposed maritime silk road would provide economic opportunities for ASEAN members, all of which have signed up to join the China-proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

From China’s standpoint, the ASEAN statement is a major blow and a serious loss of face showing that its carrots and sticks policy has not worked.

China’s response was swift. “The Chinese side is gravely concerned about the statement of the 26th ASEAN Summit on the South China Sea issue,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. The South China Sea, he reiterated, “is not an issue between China and ASEAN”.

Chinese spokesmen also defended Chinese actions as “necessary construction” that were “well within China’s sovereignty” while accusing the Philippines and Vietnam of carrying out similar activities “on China’s maritime features … illegally seized by them”.

Even before the ASEAN statement, the United States had called on China to halt its land reclamation and construction. Recently, the head of the Chinese navy, Wu Shengli, offered to allow the US to use its facilities on its artificial islands “when conditions are right”. American acceptance of such an offer, of course, will legitimize Chinese activities.

The offer, made to Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert, was rejected. The considered American response seemed to be, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

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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.