China Has Exhausted Its Goodwill in SE Asia

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 5/21/2014 02:00:00 AM
Call it "Escape From the Killing Fields 2": China sending ships to repatriate its workers from Vietnam as anti-PRC riots there resulting in the deaths of four of its nationals heralds a turning point not only in PRC-Vietnam relations but broader PRC-ASEAN relations. Make no mistake: it's getting really ugly in Vietnam for Chinese nationals and their businesses. In PR terms, what's odd is China's ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Having done the hard work establishing economic links with Southeast Asia--witness the landmark China-ASEAN FTA or even the forthcoming Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank--the PRC then destroys accumulated goodwill by reiterating its legally risible claims to own huge chunks of the South China Sea faraway from its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These incidents again show how the Communist Party is not monolithic but has conflicting interests such as trade promotion and security promotion duking it out on a global stage given the scale of China's ambitions.

Sometime ago I wrote about the amusing Vietnamese tactic of holding ballroom dancing competitions to drown out anti-PRC protesters. One of the clear victims here is the notion of Communist solidarity; the Internationale is down and out as these two socialists go head to head. It's not that Vietnamese authorities don't welcome using anti-PRC protests as a vent for the people's frustrations. Rather, the fear is that their ire could be redirected towards the Vietnamese leadership or the foreign firms investing in the country. However, deploying an oil drilling rig in contested waters was a step too far for China in not only violating the spirit of an agreement not to inflame matters but also doing so with little provocation on the part of Vietnam. Unlike the Philippines which has taken legal action against China, Vietnam did not do anything particularly "flagrant."

He Anh Tuan writes about how China is managing to unite ASEAN by scaring all claimants to the South China Sea while forcing neutrals to reconsider what Chinese expansionism means for them in their own backyard. Interestingly, Myanmar--China's client state for most of the time it was being subject to sanctions--did not object to ASEAN issuing a statement of concern about China's extra-curricular activities. Worse yet for China, it has upset our equivalent of Germany in Indonesia which has the largest population, economy and diplomatic clout in Southeast Asia:
China's action violates the principles of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the SCS and deepens suspicions among regional countries about its true intention. In addition to Vietnam and the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia are increasingly concerned about China's behavior in the region. Indonesia, which once maintained strict neutrality toward territorial disputes in the SCS, has reversed its position, and is contesting China's claim in the SCS because it challenges Jakarta's rights in the Natuna waters. In fact, Chinese armed authority vessels have encountered Indonesian authority ships several times in the last few years in waters claimed by Jakarta.

If China manages to drill oil in Vietnam's EEZ, on top of taking control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, it will go further southward and clashes would be expected with Malaysia and Indonesia. Given Indonesia's role in ASEAN, Jakarta's recent change in position toward China is a setback for Beijing. The more assertive it is in disputes in the SCS, the more its international prestige is damaged. The achievements of China's "charm offensive" toward Southeast Asia in the 1990s could be erased by a rising tide of anti-Chinese nationalism in Southeast Asia. Collectively, on May 10, ASEAN Foreign Ministers, during part of the 24th ASEAN Summit in Myanmar, issued a stand-alone joint statement on the tension in the SCS, expressing their serious concerns over the incident and reaffirming the importance of peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the SCS. This is the first time since 1995 ASEAN has issued a separate joint statement on a development in the SCS acknowledging threats to the regional peace, stability, and navigational safety in the SCS. This represents diplomatic backlash against China in Southeast Asia.
Old China hand Philip Bowring, formerly the editor of the late, lamented Far Eastern Economic Review, underscores the severity of China's own goal. That his opinion appears in the usually PRC-friendly South China Morning Post shows how many of the undecided perceive no small amount of bullying:
Not only has Beijing bared expansionist teeth to Vietnam and the Philippines, it has now succeeded in shifting Indonesia from a position of trying to act as a moderator between China and the other South China Sea states to opponent. Twice in recent months, Indonesia has accused China of claiming part of its Natuna island archipelago. So much for a "peaceful rise" when you rile neighbours with populations of more than 400 million, who you assume to be weak...

There should surely anyway be a case for compromise between China and Vietnam. Malaysia and Thailand managed one over a gas-rich area between them in the Gulf of Thailand. Other regional states - Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia - have put island ownership issues to the International Court of Justice and accepted the result. But China remains unwilling either to compromise or submit to arbitration. Meanwhile, joint development is impossible because China makes it conditional on acceptance of its sovereignty.
Despite concerns mentioned above on harming Communist solidarity and FDI, Vietnamese official media has let 'er rip--and the advantage with such media is that we do not need to question whether it has state sanction:
The Vietnamese people are angry. The nation is angry. We are telling the world that we are angry. We have every right to be angry. Thousands of Vietnamese citizens took to the streets in major cities of the country last weekend, shouting slogans and carrying placards demanding China remove its oil rig from Vietnamese waters. Demonstrations by the Vietnamese diaspora also took place in Tokyo, Berlin, Frankfurt and some other cities. The message from all these demonstrations is simple and straightforward: China should stop violating international law and respect Viet Nam's sovereignty.

What Viet Nam will do next lies in the leaders' hands. We can follow the Phillipines' in filing a lawsuit or choose another solution to hold on to our legal territories. We are in the right, and we have the law on our side. Over thousands of years, we have shown that we never cease fighting aggressors. We are proud of our freedom-fighter forefathers and resistance is in our blood. We are a small country, but we are not weak. We will stand as one, united in the cause of protecting our motherland's integrity. 
In no uncertain terms, the battle cry has been sounded by the Vietnamese, a proud, never conquered people. As the Yanks learned not so long ago, you can play Filipinos against each other, but you don't $%^& with the fierce Vietnamese. They've even indicated they may join the Philippines which has a penchant for legal maneuvers (it was colonized by the Yanks after all). At any rate, the message of the day for China is this: divide-and-conquer doesn't work when you somehow manage to unite the rest against you. With Indonesia now in the same condition as the rest of us over expansive territorial claims and Myanmar not quite as pliable to the PRC as Cambodia, the latter is isolated as China's real ASEAN ally.

As a pacifist by (internal) constitution, I have been generally glad that ASEAN members have devoted more of their efforts to development and less to defense. However, the cumulative effect is that we are somewhat unprepared with deploying force to defend the regional interest (which China has inadvertently created by turning nearly everyone against it). What's left? ASEAN members have to deftly play off one bully (China) against another (the United States). It's a tricky balancing act, but one we must play if we sensibly want to keep military spending to a bare minimum. Appropriately enough for developing countries, we are less interested in killing people than raising their living standards.

Meanwhile, the most damning thing I can say to the Chinese who claim not to aspire to hegemony is they are just like the Americans; no better or worse.