Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     Oct 5, 2010

Page 1 of 2
China's 'frown diplomacy' in Southeast Asia
By Donald K Emmerson

"Smart Power, Chinese Style" is the title of a 2008 article by a renowned Singaporean analyst of global affairs, Kishore Mahbubani. In his essay, [1] Kishore praised China for the "competence" of its diplomacy. He contrasted China's "deft geopolitical instincts" with American "incompetence" and "arrogance." He noted admiringly Beijing's fealty to ancient principles of Chinese statecraft once summarized by Deng Xiaoping, including admonitions to observe and analyze calmly, deal with changes patiently, and avoid the limelight. Keeping a low profile was especially significant for Kishore since it explained "much of China's recent behavior in international fora."

Unlike the self-absorbed Americans, in Kishore's view, the Chinese had "developed a remarkable capacity to understand the voices of others around the globe." Compared with Washington's


record of "geopolitical fumbles" abroad, China had evinced superior "geopolitical acumen and better professional diplomacy." He illustrated China's ostensible respect for the sovereignty of other countries with an item in the official China Daily stating that China had offered "no-strings-attached" aid to Africa.

2008 was then; 2010 is now. The sheer muscularity of recent Chinese diplomacy in East Asia has made Kishore's assessment seem, in retrospect, wishfully Sinophilic. The "smile diplomacy" in Southeast Asia that China watchers used to describe has been reversed by Beijing - into a frown. In the eyes of more than a few East Asian foreign-policymakers, China has come close to deleting the first letter in the "charm offensive" that Joshua Kurlantzick surveyed in his 2007 book by that name. [2]

I heard variations on this critique over the course of three weeks in September 2010 spent traveling in East Asia. Japanese concern focused on Beijing's hardball response to Tokyo's detention of the Chinese fishing boat captain arrested in a confrontation over who owns the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. Many of the Southeast Asians I met were upset by China's behavior before, during, and after the July 2010 meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi. My subject here is the second of these irritants. [3]

China sticks out its tongue
On a Chinese map a line nine dashes long snakes southward, hugging the Philippine coast before turning west past Malaysian Sabah, independent Brunei, and Malaysian Sarawak. The line bottoms out near Indonesia's Great Natuna island before turning northward along the coast of Vietnam and finally coming to an end near the Chinese island of Hainan. Thus has Beijing drawn the giant lapping tongue that demarcates its apparent claim to virtually the entire surface of, and the seabed and subsoil beneath, the South China Sea. [4] Among the competing claims made by Southeast Asian states, Vietnam's is comparably sweeping, while those advanced by Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines are more restricted in scope.

On my recent trip I heard a Chinese colleague downplay the tension associated with rivalries of this sort. He said it was normal for them to wax and wane. In the South China Sea since 2007, however, they have mostly waxed. Unilateral actions, some by Hanoi but most by Beijing, including a Chinese ban on fishing in "its" waters, have triggered a sequence of maritime confrontations between the two countries.

Alarm bells rang still louder in March 2010 when Chinese officials were reported to have told senior figures in the US State Department that possession of the South China Sea was a "core interest" of Beijing, as if that claim were no less absolute and no more negotiable than Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan or Tibet. In a conversation with me in September an expert on South China Sea issues wondered if this escalation might not have started out as a casual remark that higher-ups in China then felt they could not disown. Whatever the accuracy of that speculation, [5] Beijing now has the ability to raise or to lower regional anxiety by choosing whether or not, in future statements, to reiterate the supposedly "core" status of its proprietary interest in the Sea.

Having so prominently stuck out its maritime tongue at Southeast Asia, China knew that it might face a backlash in July 2010 when the ASEAN Regional Forum was scheduled to meet in Hanoi. Instead of moderating its position, however, Beijing reportedly contacted all of ASEAN's member governments and strongly urged them not to broach the subject of the South China Sea in Hanoi. I was unable to confirm this allegation with a Chinese source, but I heard it from enough Southeast Asian sources to be confident that Beijing did try to censor the event in advance.

The effort failed. At the meeting of the Forum in Hanoi on 23 July, nearly half - 12 - of the heads of the 27 delegations present mentioned the South China Sea. Those who spoke up included several Southeast Asian foreign ministers and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The delegates met behind closed doors. I have not seen a transcript of what was said. But the remarks made by Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi in particular were still very much on the minds of the Southeast Asians I met on my travels nearly two months later.

There can be no doubt, based on accounts by individuals who were in the room, that Yang was angry. Clinton was the foremost target of his wrath, but the foreign minister lashed out as well at the Southeast Asians who had been so bold as to mention the South China Sea. He reminded his ASEAN counterparts of their countries' economic ties to China, as if those links could be broken at any time. He reminded his Southeast Asian listeners that, compared to the sizes of their countries, China was bigger. My informants took his remarks to be a clear warning not to challenge Beijing.

Hillary in Hanoi
At a "press availability" afterwards, Secretary Clinton made no mention of Yang's outburst. Instead she said that "like every nation," the US too had "a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea." (Analysts seeking signs of a new Sino-American cold war were free to construe her reference to a US "national interest" in accessing the Sea as a riposte to China's apparent "core interest" in possessing it.)

While noting that the US "does not take sides" in the "territorial disputes over land features in the South China Sea" - the emphasis is mine - Clinton described the US position as:

(1) opposed to "the use or threat of force by any claimant";

(2) favoring a collaborative process for resolving these disputes in accord with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (despite, I would add, the failure of the US to ratify it, an omission she said her administration hoped to correct);

(3) supporting the "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea" (DOC) that China and the ASEAN states co-signed in 2002, encouraging the parties to agree on "a full [i.e., binding] code of conduct," and offering to "facilitate initiatives and confidence building measures" consistent with the Declaration; and

(4) believing that, "consistent with customary international law, legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features"(with the emphasis, again, my own). [6]

It is tempting to dismiss Yang's outburst as much ado about nothing. Clinton did not, after all, explicitly oppose China's claim. Nor did she back any rival claim. Yet arguably each of her four points, if not actually aimed at Beijing, could be said to challenge the Chinese position insofar as it can be ascertained. The opacity of China's stand on the Sea, which Beijing has not clearly or consistently explained, makes it hard to know just what would constitute a challenge in this context.

Reviewing Clinton's four points in the light of China's behavior, one could conclude that, on the first score, Beijing has already used force - against Vietnamese fisherman, for example. As for observing the Law of the Sea, although China did sign on, its endorsement was conditioned with reservations that - in the published view of analyst Marvin Ott and the unpublished opinions of several of my informants - make that ratification "almost meaningless." [7]

Clinton's third point, in support of the DOC, could be taken as criticism of China's unwillingness to upgrade the Declaration into a binding code of conduct. Last but not least, Clinton's case for deriving legitimate claims to sea space "solely from legitimate claims to land features" seems to contradict the sheer amplitude of Beijing's nine-dash tongue, encompassing as it almost does the entire South China Sea. 

Continued 1 2  

Japan poured oil on troubled waters
(Oct 2, '10)

China tests the cool of Zen Japan
(Sep 29, '10)



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110