Hillary C, Here's the Score on the South China Sea

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 8/16/2010 12:11:00 AM
I honestly wish this story would have gone away by now but it hasn't. It's rather annoying that those with few qualifications to comment on the matter keep blabbing away without shedding new light on the matter. To me, the worst offender is the Economist. Currently ranked first and fourth among the most read features are slanted pieces about "Strategic Jousting Between China and America: Testing the Waters" and "They [The Americans] Have Returned." As you will read below, however, there is much that has been left out by this often-belligerent publication that, among other things, cheered on that stunningly successful exercise in freedom-and-growth promotion, the invasion of Iraq.

So, the IPE Zone is now compelled to, ah, wade into these troubled waters to set the record straight on important points of discussion. During the last ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised a ruckus by declaring "The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea," and it seeks "a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion."

The US sees raising the matter as safeguarding its interests in keeping these important trade routes open, while China believes it to be interference in its internal affairs since these longstanding territorial disputes are between it and Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan--with regard to the Paracels--and Vietnam. (Note that Taiwan is not a member of ARF which discusses security matters in the Asia-Pacific.) Since Vietnam is currently the rotating chair of ASEAN, the now-famous gathering where Missus Clinton raised her voice occurred in Hanoi and ended on 23 July. By doing so, the US is supposedly checking Chinese aggression against comparatively small Southeast Asian states. And so it is that assorted blowhards started applauding Clinton's action. Gordon "The Coming Collapse of China" Chang (we're still waiting, bub) weighed in. Always looking for a China menace-style angle, American media similarly paints a fairly sensationalist picture of what's going on. A geographically challenged hack even considers Australia as part of Southeast Asia while depicting a regional arms race.

Coming from a country contesting claims with China and having looked at this issue in some detail as part of my research into regional economic integration, let me offer salient points for consideration Western media and the Americanized blogosphere often miss:

1. Military exercises between the US Navy and ASEAN states have been boringly common--even so during the Bush 43 era. I refer to the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) annual naval exercises conducted between the US and Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand--7 out of 10 ASEAN members. Additionally, the Philippines and US have conducted more of these exercises in the wake of the global war on terror. (Some obscure publication called the China Daily has even dutifully reported on these exercises all these years unlike much of Western media who've suddenly discovered that, gee, military exercises are happening in Southeast Asia...with the US Navy!)

What of the other ASEAN members? Laos is landlocked, while Myanmar and the US are famously at loggerheads. Regarding the emergence of US-Vietnam naval exercises, perhaps this little-known incident called the Vietnam War may have put off the latter's participation for some time? Give me a break.

2. Consider the implications of the China-ASEAN FTA. The economic subtext is of China rapidly leaving the US behind (together with its mighty exports) in trade volume terms with ASEAN. Having surpassed the US as ASEAN's third largest trading partner, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is providing ever-closer trade ties in a manner of speaking. Running interference in the security realm to distract from closer Sino-ASEAN economic cooperation may be part of America's ploy, but it certainly doesn't seem to be deterring it. I am far from alone in saying the US is being left behind.

While the Western media was whipping itself into a frenzy of its own making these past few days, Vietnamese state media dutifully reported with no histrionics that Vietnamese officials representing ASEAN were in bordering Guangxi province working on further enhancing the so far successful trade pact. It's a strange world we're in, but state media often paints a more honest picture insofar as their portrayals will almost never clash with sanctioned views.

3. In 2002, China and ASEAN countries making claims on islands in the area concluded the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. There is nothing to suggest that China is keen on using force to seize these islands, or that even more far-fetched, ASEAN countries will do so. They have stuck to the text and are in talks to make these arrangements more concrete.

4. It's pretty rich for the US to butt into this dispute citing "international law" as a justification when it's not even a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that governs these matters. It's a long story why the US hasn't ratified the convention, but let's just say it's even less keen on abiding by "international law" than China is as evidenced by its refusal to sign UNCLOS. Like in many other fields of international interest, America is hypocritical and two-faced when it redounds to its benefit. By citing "international law" that it hasn't even signed on to as a basis for sorting out this dispute, it's characteristic American bluster--all mouth, no trousers.

5. The ideal outcome would be to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration. Again, this part is tricky. The countries involved have differing interpretations of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) under UNCLOS which they all have signed on to unlike the US. China's claim is, to put in mildly, fairly expansive as it covers both the entirety of the Paracels and the Spratlys. Our Indonesian colleagues have tried to act as arbiters to settle these matters once and for all as (genuinely) disinterested observers, but to no avail.

Hence, the best way to adjudicate this dispute would be to refer it to the ICJ in the Hague, the UN court that deals with territorial disputes, over the interpretation of UNCLOS. For understandable reasons, China will probably be the most reluctant party to submit to third-party proceedings given past precedents. But hey, I guess it's better than the US which can't even refer such matters to the ICJ.

6. PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his staff are no slouches when it comes to training in diplomacy. In contrast to negative portrayals by Western media, Chinese officials are quite cosmopolitan and well-schooled. Again, Yang Jiechi is an LSE alum and an honorary fellow at our institution. Meanwhile, we at LSE IDEAS regularly interact with foreign ministry officials since we run a collaborative programme with them in conjunction with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

7. Vietnam did not spring a surprise on China at the ARF with US help but has long since signalled its intention to bring this matter up as current ASEAN chair. This obscure news outlet, a certain BBC, had a pretty detailed discussion of Vietnam's intentions to do so in, er, April 2010. It's certainly Vietnam's right to bring the matter up, and the US calculated that its interests were better served by backing Vietnam. At any rate, ASEAN members are not quite happy with US military vessels traversing what they believe are their waters willy-nilly.

8. China is loathe to contest US naval dominance directly as it is a waste of money.
While it may be spending more on military hardware, it pales in comparison to that spent by the US. Instead, it is drawing up plans for extensive land routes that cannot be as easily disrupted. Revisit my recent post on how China is keen on establishing rail links to South and West Asia via a new Silk Road. The point is, there are no mammoth George Washington-sized vessels that will be patrolling overland routes (or disrupting them if push comes to shove). Unlike aircraft carriers, destroyers, or frigates, this kind of expenditure is directly conducive to building infrastructure and trade ties.

9. At the gathering, participants including China concluded by resolving to continue discussions on the matter. This is perhaps the most galling bit: China did not object to participating in further dialogue over the matter which was already underway to begin with. From the statement at the end of the meeting:
The Ministers stressed the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. The Ministers reaffirmed the continuing importance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) of 2002 as a milestone document between ASEAN Member States and China, embodying their collective commitment to ensuring the peaceful resolution of disputes in the area. They stressed that the Declaration has been effective in building mutual trust and confidence that will help maintain peace and stability in the region. The Ministers encouraged efforts towards the full implementation of the Declaration and the eventual conclusion of a Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).

They encouraged the continued exercise of self-restraint by all the parties concerned and the promotion of confidence-building measures in this area and welcomed their commitment to resolving disputes in the South China Sea by peaceful means in conformity with the spirit of the DOC and recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982). In this regard, they welcomed the reconvening of the ASEAN - China Joint Working Group on the Implementation of the DOC in Viet Nam in April 2010 and the schedule to hold the next Joint Working Group Meeting in China before the end of 2010.
If you're further interesting in the history of this ongoing story, particularly between China and Vietnam (the most contentious Sino-ASEAN relationship) and between China and the Philippines, Japan Focus has an informative article that details most of the surrounding controversies.

Bottom line: the media frenzy over Clinton's visit is largely manufactured. Not only is America not a party to the dispute, but its offer to act as a mediator on various claims based on "international law" is also disingenuous given that it is not a signatory to UNCLOS. Other than perhaps acting as a convenient spoiler--a certain conflict leads me to believe the Vietnamese know how to handle proto-crusaders--the US has little to offer in resolving these territorial disputes. Whether in cyberspace or the South China Sea, American protestations are usually of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort.

For the reasons given above, I'll leave the warmongering to the Economist.