James Holmes

Beijing’s Goal: A New Normal

By acting as though it exercises jurisdiction over disputed areas, China hopes to create a new status quo.

A Vietnamese friend asks how Southeast Asian governments should counter China’s doubling-down on its maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea. Late last week the Hainan provincial government enacted regulations that provide for boarding or even seizing ships that “illegally” enter Chinese-claimed waters or land on Chinese-claimed islands. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese fishing boats cut the cables on a Vietnamese vessel exploring for oil over the weekend. And of course Beijing has taken to printing a map in newly issued passports that includes the “nine-dashed line” enclosing most of the South China Sea. Commentators rightly speculated about where Hainan’s directive applies, what constitutes illegality in Chinese eyes, and how the new regimen will affect freedom of navigation through regional shipping lanes.

Whatever the particulars, this constitutes a clear effort to create a new normal. By acting as though it exercises jurisdiction over the islands and adjacent waters, Beijing surrounds its maritime territorial claims with an air of normalcy. Making and enforcing law to control territory is the essence of sovereignty. Left unchallenged, new facts on the ground will harden into a new status quo. What should Southeast Asians do? That’s a big question, but here’s one tip. They should start by thinking hard about what kind of behavior they want to reward and what kind they want to punish. Scant days before the Hainan government promulgated its regulations, the news broke that ASEAN governments intend to negotiate a regional trade bloc that also encompasses Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and … China.

This Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership will exclude the United States, which has been pushing an eleven-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.That seems a tad perverse at a time when Southeast Asians look to America as their balancer of first resort against China, which wants to modify the regional order to their detriment. Why should Beijing desist from objectionable policies if it knows it will pay no price for them?

Note to ASEAN: unmix your messages.