Features | Security | East Asia

The Limits of China as Villain

The current tensions in the South China Sea can’t just be blamed on Beijing. The shortcomings of ASEAN have played a big part.

China is usually typecast as the villain in the Asia-Pacific’s security dramas, and the recent confrontations in the South China Sea have been no different. The narrative has revolved around an aggressive China that has recklessly pushed the envelope of its territorial claims, steamrolling its weaker neighbours and jeopardising regional stability.

China’s actions and miscommunications have indeed contributed to the growing discordance of the security mood music, with the Philippines and Vietnam in particular genuinely alarmed about the assertiveness – veering perhaps between aggression and plain clumsiness – which China has been displaying in the disputed zones of the South China Sea.

But that’s only part of the story: Asia’s maritime difficulties are above all a collective failure. Between them, the region’s stakeholders have succeeded only in exposing the dangerous weakness of their multilateral institutions. These platforms, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) among them, are struggling to regulate the behaviour of their members and develop meaningful controls over the region’s security. This is because competing interests, rather than common purpose, continue to dominate regional thinking, even within ASEAN. It can also partly be explained by the enduring presence of one very successful, unilateral security institution in the Pacific region: the United States military.

The crisis of Asian multilateralism was played out very publicly at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, which was held in Singapore in early June and where the region’s maritime disputes – and how best to resolve them – were one of two topics that dominated the agenda. The other, very much related to the first, was whether the United States would sustain its military presence in Asia.

Asian leaders seem to have given up trying to create new institutions to fix these problems. The ideas of the last two to do so, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, fizzled along with their premierships and were quietly dropped by their respective governments. ‘There is no appetite for new institutions,’ says Tim Huxley, the director of IISS-Asia, the think tank that organises the Dialogue. ‘What we heard was a reassertion of interest in using the existing, ASEAN-centric institutions, but with that come really quite major problems for the region.’

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The biggest challenge of ASEAN-centrism is that ASEAN itself has been fractious in recent months, as a result of both the ongoing Thai-Cambodian confrontation and also of individual members pursuing their conflicting claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam, for example, has seized on the maritime dispute as enthusiastically as Bangkok has played up its skirmishes with the Cambodians in order draw some of the heat away from domestic troubles (in Hanoi’s case, these are economic). Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told The Diplomat in Singapore ‘that ASEAN, despite all the security challenges it has gone through, has consistently progressed towards achieving the status of ASEAN Political-Security by Community 2015.’

But that’s now a very optimistic assessment. ‘It will be difficult for them to admit defeat, so they will maybe go back to a 2020 deadline,’ Huxley suggests. ‘It’s clear, though, that the ASEAN Political-Security Community is seriously under threat.’

The question is why ASEAN states appear to be letting the community agenda fall apart just when Chinese assertiveness should be encouraging them to close ranks. Philippine President Benigno Aquino expressed his preference for a united ASEAN front on the South China Sea issue during a trip to Brunei in June. ‘Let’s come together as a body,’ he said, advising a collective approach rather than ASEAN individualism, whereby each member would resolve its problems with China bilaterally (as Vietnam and China now seem inclined to do).

Yet there seems little sign of ASEAN forming a negotiating bloc to iron out the disputes with its northern neighbour. China’s close economic ties with many ASEAN countries dissuade those not directly involved in the South China Sea disputes to strike a neutral tone over China’s alleged incursions, while the conflicting claims of ASEAN countries militate against unified action.

For their own sake, the ASEAN members, if not exactly ganging up on China, need to close ranks to make it difficult for Beijing to pursue any kind of divide-and-conquer strategy. The negotiation of a tougher Code of Conduct (COC) to replace 2002’s tattered Declaration of Conduct (DOC) – which the Philippines especially is calling for, and Indonesia now also supports – should be a rallying point for the ASEAN countries: they should at least be able to speak with one voice when it comes to setting the ground rules, if not in resolving the actual disputes. ASEAN would then be able to consider it a collective affront should China contravene the new agreement, as it appears to have done in the case of the existing DOC.

China’s recent show of assertiveness has arguably come in response to two factors: Chinese perceptions, prematurely formed, of US decline in Asia; and more accurate perceptions of ASEAN’s weakness. The United States’ restatement of its strategic interest in the Asia-Pacific might persuade China to tread more carefully in future. But it would be a shame if US promises were to lull ASEAN into overlooking the institutional repairs that it urgently needs to perform. If the United States has played the role of ultimate security guarantor, its presence hasn’t been able to prevent the persistent and corrosive maritime clashes that continue to sour Asia-Pacific relations. Confidence-building measures, which China always vocally supports, are certainly useful, but tend too often to simply repair the damage from previous collapses in confidence. A robust and preventive institutional framework would ensure that those collapses occur far more infrequently in the first place by establishing clear red lines that China and other interested parties would be more reluctant to test.

The first step on the road to redress is therefore the establishment of a robust new COC governing the South China Sea as negotiated by a unified ASEAN. A positive outcome would be a restatement of ASEAN’s credentials as the bedrock of Asia-Pacific security. This is critical because if Asia-Pacific security is to be ASEAN-centric – and nobody is proposing a new framework that would do things any differently – then the centre of that structure’s gravity, ASEAN, is the element that most needs to be solid.

A disunited ASEAN whose members prefer to make their own bilateral security arrangements rather than work collectively would only make for a shakier Asia-Pacific.