Chinese Premier Seeks to Calm South China Sea Concerns

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Chinese Premier Seeks to Calm South China Sea Concerns

During a meeting with ASEAN counterparts, Li Qiang implied that China and rival claimants could address outstanding disputes without the involvement of outside powers.

Chinese Premier Seeks to Calm South China Sea Concerns

Chinese Premier Li Qiang speaks during the ASEAN-China Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 6, 2023.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

Chinese Premier Li Qiang yesterday referenced his country’s “brotherly ties” with Southeast Asian nations and underscored its economic centrality to the region, amid a rise in frictions in the disputed South China Sea.

In yesterday’s ASEAN-China Summit in Jakarta, he told his counterparts from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that the two nations had cooperated well on a range of issues, including on the coronavirus pandemic, and that the same would be true on the maritime disputes.

“As long as we keep to the right path, no matter what storm may come, China-ASEAN cooperation will be as firm as ever and press ahead against all odds,” Li told counterparts. “We have preserved peace and tranquility in East Asia in a world fraught with turbulence and change.”

Li was seeking to play down regional concerns about Beijing’s recent aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea, which have seen China Coast Guard vessels threaten and block Vietnamese and Philippine ships in contested waters.

On August 5, a China Coast Guard vessel blocked and shot a water cannon at a Philippine navy-chartered supply boat in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, forcing it to abandon its attempts to resupply the forces stationed on the atoll. This came after a similar incident near Second Thomas Shoal in February involving a Chinese Coast Guard vessel, this time involving the use of a military-grade laser.

The past six months have also seen an increase in Chinese incursions into waters also claimed by Vietnam. Vietnamese fishermen alleged that a Chinese vessel attacked their fishing boat with a high-pressure water cannon in the South China Sea on August 28, injuring two of them.

Li made no mention of the new “standard map” that China’s government released last week, which depicted its expansive claims encroaching into their coastal waters. The map’s release prompted public protests from the four Southeast Asian South China Sea claimants – Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei – as well as Indonesia.

As always, Li’s aim was to underscore China’s economic centrality and indispensability to the region. Also implicit in Li’s comments about brotherhood and “the right path” was the frequent Chinese claim that recent frictions are a result not of Chinese aggression but of the illegitimate interference of outside powers – i.e. the United States.

The claim was made more explicitly this week by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who in a speech to an Indonesian think tank blamed an unnamed “backstage manipulator” for preventing consensus between China and ASEAN on the South China Sea, and accused “individual external forces” of “sowing discord” in the region. He went on to say that the “tragedy” of the war in Ukraine must not be repeated in Asia. (Wang’s short-lived successor and predecessor, Qin Gang, made a similarly ominous comment back in March, when he said that “no Ukraine-style crisis should be repeated in Asia.”)

“To cater to its own strategic needs and maintain its global hegemony,” the China Daily wrote in an editorial yesterday, “the U.S. is turning the sea into a playground for major power competition, totally disregarding the regional countries’ quest for peace, stability, and development.”

While it is true the U.S. is not entirely blameless for the fact that the South China Sea disputes have become shackled to the broader U.S.-China competition, the Philippines this week pushed back against the claim that its concerns were purely a confection of American officials. A day earlier Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in a meeting with his ASEAN counterparts defended his administration’s concerns about territorial integrity, even if he didn’t mention China by name.

“We do not seek conflict; but it is our duty as citizens and as leaders to always rise to meet any challenge to our sovereignty, to our sovereign rights and our maritime jurisdictions in the South China Sea,” he said. “No country would expect any less. No country would do any less.”

The Philippines, he said, calls upon all parties for self-restraint on activities that complicate South China Sea disputes. “The Philippines firmly rejects misleading narratives that frame the disputes in the South China Sea solely through the lens of strategic competition between two powerful countries,” Marcos said.

During yesterday’s China-ASEAN Summit, Marcos was less pointed in his criticisms, and did not explicitly mention any of the recent incidents, The Associated Press reported, citing a copy of the remarks that was distributed to reporters.

The Philippines “continues to uphold the primacy of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea as the framework within which all activities in the seas and oceans are conducted,” Marcos said in the meeting. “We once again reaffirm our commitment to the rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes.”

ASEAN has still not made an official response to the recent developments in disputed waters. Current ASEAN chair Indonesia failed to follow the U.S. and other Western nations in issuing any expression of alarm over the Chinese coast guard’s actions last month. The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs announced on August 31 that Marcos would “be making a big push” for ASEAN to issue a joint statement during this week’s meetings.

But as one observer noted yesterday, the Philippines “did not put forward a proposal for a joint statement on the South China Sea” when ASEAN foreign ministers met on Tuesday, making it unlikely that there would be an ASEAN response to the current frictions in the South China Sea. It was unclear why Manila did not attempt to rally the bloc’s other eight present members, but given the past difficulty in attaining a consensus on the disputes, which directly affect just five of ASEAN’s 10 members, perhaps it assumed that it simply wouldn’t be worth the effort.

If that’s the case, it says something about the faith that member states place in ASEAN to address some of the most pressing regional challenges of our times. Marty Natalegawa, a former foreign minister of Indonesia, this week called ASEAN’s failure to condemn China’s recent behavior “a deafening silence.”