I asked a couple of days ago what the official Chinese response for domestic consumption was likely to be to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement last week at an Asian security forum in which she called on China to tackle offshore territorial disputes in the South China Sea through international consultations.
Beijing is, of course, furious at what it sees as US intervention in its own backyard, especially as it has preferred dealing with South-east Asian nations on a bilateral basis (and, as I’ve mentioned before, making unilateral decisions like barring Vietnamese fishermen from the area).
A strong indication of how China is likely to try and spin US intervention came with a piece run by the official Xinhua News Agency yesterday that questions US intentions and suggests the involvement of a superpower in the region will only ‘complicate’ matters and ‘bring tragedy’ to those concerned as a result of a strategy of ‘divide and rule’.
It’s difficult to see how the writer could have written this with a straight face. China’s policy of insisting on dealing with disputes in this region bilaterally rather than through regional forums is well-documented, and it hasn’t been averse to the kind of diplomatic ‘coercion’ it now accuses the United States of.
The article goes on to state: ‘Unfortunately, some countries around the South China Sea are embracing the US strategy, thus voluntarily playing into the hands of Washington…But the fact is that things will most likely run counter to their wishes, and they will finally turn into a chess piece of a superpower.’
And it concludes:
‘Asian countries should display wisdom in resolving the issue through direct friendly consultations, and should be on guard against being used as a chess piece paving the way for outside involvement.’
Such comments sounded to me both hypocritical and patronizing in equal measure. But I was curious to get a couple of other perspectives from the region so I contacted Filipino lawmaker Mong Palatino and Philippines-based blogger Julius Rocas for their take on China’s interpretation of events.
And Rocas was particularly scathing. He said China’s ‘protest’ was ‘littered with hypocrisy’ as has been demonstrated, for example, over the disputed Spratly Islands (which are claimed by a number of nations) and which China has tried to occupy.
‘The one nation in the region that has threatened peace and stability is China itself…its navy has been providing escorts to Chinese fishing vessels and their submarines have been reported to be harassing US vessels in the area. So how can China talk of peace and stability without conflict when it has been using its military might to dominate the issue ever since?’
He said that although many in South-east Asia would like to take a unified ‘Asian stance’ and fend off Western meddling, the Philippines for one has recognised it’s no match for China and so has had to rely on the United States for diplomatic and military support.
‘It’s clear that this has become another front for the conflicting interests of two superpowers,’ Rocas added. ‘When China described it as something that will “jeopardize the status quo” in the region, it meant that US intervention or involvement would mean jeopardizing China's continuing dominance in the South China Sea.’
Palatino had a similar take, also noting that China is already embroiled in the Spratly row and arguing that its criticism is almost certainly motivated out of concerns for its own interests, rather than a principled desire for Asian brotherhood.
‘Both countries want to play big brother in the South China Seas but Southeast Asian nations must resist,’ he said, arguing that by working together through ASEAN these countries will be better able to thwart the ‘sinister’ motives of both the US and China.
China may not like what the US is doing, but implications of South-east Asian naiveté seem wide of the mark. In the Philippines at least, they’re well aware of what the big two are up to.