On March 18, China and ASEAN gathered in Singapore to pursue consultations on a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea, alongside talks on the implementation of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC). The gathering came at a time of rising preoccupation over a perceived creeping assertiveness by China in pursuing its maritime claims. Just one week before, Manila and Beijing experienced another diplomatic row, after Chinese Coast Guard vessels barred the resupply of Philippine marines based in the Spratly Islands.
In broader terms, several high-profile developments have hinted that China is becoming more inclined to consider the threat and use of force as its preferred vehicle for influence in the South China Sea. China’s considerable maritime build-up has been accompanied by the merging of its maritime agencies into a unified Coast Guard unit, the publication of maps with a 10-dash line covering Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and even the announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, covering the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. All have contributed to turning the South China Sea into “Asia’s cauldron,” as one renowned expert titled his last book. A widely circulated photograph picturing Chinese sailors forming the slogan “The Chinese dream, the dream of a strong military” on the deck of the Liaoning did nothing to help mitigate nervousness over Chinese aims and strategy in the region.
The timing of these China-ASEAN discussions coincided with rising tensions in Eastern Europe around the fate of Crimea. In recent days, neither international law nor European pressure have proved of much value in the face of Russian resolve. Illegal in many respects, the Crimean referendum was still deemed valid in Moscow, which subsequently annexed the region. The Ukrainian military bases in Crimea were rapidly overwhelmed by pro-Russian forces as the last vestiges of political control from Kiev were swept aside, making a return to status quo ante increasingly remote. Russia clearly has the upper hand in Crimea. It successfully promoted its interests through a combination of intimidation and crawling assertiveness while answering European and American criticisms by pointing to Western interventions in Kosovo and Libya. The larger consequences of this strategy for Euro-Russian relations and stability in Eastern Europe remain unclear. However, this demonstration of how, in certain situations, force prevails over diplomacy, a notion long fought by the European Union, has opened a new Pandora’s box.
Certainly, Russia’s bid to bend international norms in its favor through the use of force, and Western reactions to it are being watched with great interest, and probably some trepidation, in Beijing and Southeast Asia. Whether the Crimea issue will have influence in Southeast Asia, in the context of competing territorial claims, is far from clear. However, the Crimean and South China Sea issues have several elements in common. One of the most prominent is the complexity of managing—let alone solving—territorial disputes, especially when dealing with an evolving power. Another is that both cases stress the necessity but limited efficacy of diplomacy.
Confronted with a complex and contradictory China, Southeast Asian countries may derive a sense of urgency from developments in the Crimea. For ASEAN and its members, the crucial question may well be whether they can succeed in convincing China of the long-term benefits of diplomacy over force and fait accompli. It may well be ASEAN’s last chance: Negotiations began 22 years ago, in 1992, and have yet to produce convincing results for either party. If the 2002 Declaration reaffirmed a commitment to international law and freedom of navigation, there has been obvious evidence of unilateralism by certain parties, be they the Filipino government, the Chinese military or even the Hainan authorities. The case may be pressed further in light of the Crimea events: should a Code of Conduct be effectively agreed, with—as China made clear—no deadline for its actual implementation, will it suffice to curtail national frustration from any party, limit tensions and therefore avoid escalation?
Diplomacy is important. It is the channel through which the different stakeholders can showcase and explain their diverging perceptions and interests, communicate, negotiate, and ultimately create a path to de-escalation and stabilization for future common benefit. But it could also prove limited in that it is largely dependent on power configurations and functions under a series of conventions and norms that can either facilitate or constrain discussions. In the Crimean and South China Sea cases, diplomacy is largely, yet not exclusively, undertaken under the particular framework of one international institution (the EU or ASEAN) engaging one great power (Russia or China). Facilitating discussions is the fact that in both situations, stakeholders are connected through a series of strong economic, political and institutional interests. The bad news is that these networks of interests look rather fragile when history becomes a self-asserted, and emotional, argument. Moreover, internal divisions within both the EU and ASEAN have the consequence of blurring the common vision that their members may seek to promote, weakening their negotiating position and constraining the options available to their diplomats. In both cases, the basic worry for the EU and ASEAN alike is to come up with a compelling response to political and military resolve, with international law and negotiations offering little assistance.
The Singapore round of consultations on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea produced no notable progress. That is not much of a surprise to experts already of the opinion that the very process is merely cosmetic and deserving of little attention, arguing that China will not give way on what it considers its national and sovereign territory. Other authors have explained that Chinese diplomats are content with the DoC, and will not push for quick progress on a CoC as the latter would inevitably hurt the national interest. Such speculation and doubt over the scope and effectiveness of the negotiations did not alter ASEAN’s official line: sanctions do not help; consultations are always better. Will the future prove that correct? It appears that ASEAN’s bet is to prove that China sees an interest in these talks and would gain in following certain rules not just in terms of image and status but also in promoting its views and “dream” through an ASEAN platform.
Before the recent events in Crimea, ASEAN’s diplomacy was considered adequate by most stakeholders—with the possible exception of the Philippines, which nonetheless ceaselessly appealed to the bloc for help. All claimant countries and their neighbors found an interest in pursuing dual-track negotiations with China, bilateral and multilateral, the latter stage mainly serving, via ASEAN, communication purposes. But now may be the time to consider adding more substance to the discussions, and more glue to the Southeast Asian claimants.
The Crimea is far from the South China Sea, and the two contexts certainly differ in many respects. But Russia’s bold move has shown that resorting to international law to contain a great power’s resolve is not always effective. Even in Moscow, few would disagree, pointing to the invasion of Libya or that of Iraq as counterexamples. Whether the events of the Crimea provide lessons to Chinese and ASEAN diplomats is unknown, but they have made a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea an urgent diplomatic imperative. Success would showcase China’s “peaceful rise” as it would ASEAN’s diplomatic capacity. The efforts of both partners to create stability and security would also be welcome news to a heavily challenged international community.
Bruno Hellendorff is a Research Fellow and Dr. Sophie Boisseau du Rocher is an Associate Researcher at the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security, Brussels.