South China Sea Disputes and Southeastern Asian Countries.(Interview of Major General S B Asthana by SCMP)

Looking at South China Sea dispute today, the game of military posturing continues with China’s incremental encroachment in the region and infrastructure development (including military infrastructure), and similar countermoves and military postures to ensure freedom of navigation by US (including commencement of official visits to Taiwan). It reminds me that nothing much has changed in last two and a half years, when I was interviewed by South China Morning Post (SCMP) . The ICA’s ruling which came later, US pullout of TPP, and US lifting of Arms embargo on Vietnam post their President’s visit have not made any appreciable difference in the SCS situation.  One of the major reason has been that US attention got shifted towards North Korea crisis, with lesser attention at South China Sea.
In this context I am sharing an email interview of mine taken by SCMP, by Catherine T L Wong, China Reporter, SCMP on 06 May 2016. The extracts were quoted in the print edition of the paper, the URL of which is attached below the email version of interview.
I am writing to invite you to share your views on the South China Sea disputes for a feature report on our paper about the Southeast Asian countries’ stance on the disputes. I am sure our readers would benefit much from your professional insights in better understanding the development of this important issue.

In the run up for announcement of decision of Tribunal on UN Convention on Laws of Sea (Eminent international court of arbitration ruling), Chinese announcement on reclamation at the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea (SCS), and US announcement of placing 60 percent of US Naval fleet in Indo-Asia-Pacific in next two years, the big power play in SCS is quite evident. In this context, The South China Sea (SCS) disputes, uncomfortable strategic and military posturing by world powers in that region, and continued progress of infrastructure build up on some disputed islands by China, are extremely disturbing for Southeast Asian countries, and it poses a great diplomatic challenge for them to formulate a definite stance in this ‘Big Power Play’ in SCS. While the infrastructure development by China in SCS being dual use (civil as well as military), based on claimed Sovereignty Rights, as per unilateral perception of historical claim of  China keeps progressing, it is viewed as strategic encroachment, by giving teeth to its ‘Active Defense Strategy’ by other users of SCS. The strategic and military posturing by US on the pretext of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ is considered as disturbance to regional peace by China.  However, if more than 50% of global maritime trade volume passes through SCS, it is definitely a global concern; hence its strategic dimensions and implications are well beyond the regional domain. The answers to your specific Questions are given in succeeding paragraphs.

Here are my questions:
1. Ahead of an imminent international court of arbitration ruling over the South China Sea, China has been pushing efforts to enlist support from other countries. Earlier this month, China said it has reached a new consensus with Brunei , Cambodia and Laos — three members of the 10-country ASEAN — endorsing its stance that the South China Sea dispute should be resolved between the countries directly involved and that the disputes would not affect Sino-Asean ties. But Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said his country had reached no new agreement with China over the dispute. How has China ’s increasing assertiveness affected the stance of its smaller neighbors in the Southeast Asia on the South China Sea disputes?

Answer 1

The Chinese assertiveness and ‘Incremental Encroachment’ in the region followed by physical action of construction of twin use infrastructure on disputed shoals has demonstrated China’s resolve to assert its claim, as China perceives it.  The Chinese effort seems to be to give a regional color to the dispute, and impress upon smaller neighbours in South Eastern Countries to deal with her on bilateral terms, use ‘Purse Diplomacy’, ‘Infrastructure Diplomacy’, luring them with investments, and limited coercion to make them speak the narrative of regional bilateral issue and non-interference of ‘Outside Powers’.  The example quoted by you is part of such diplomacy.  However, I do not think that the stance on the ‘conflicting claim’ of any smaller neighbour has been affected, although most of them may not have opposed China aggressively. No smaller neighbour amongst South Eastern Countries has given up her claims or criticised Philippines for having gone in for international arbitration. The concern shown by other users of South China Sea(SCS) is also going to embolden them to maintain their stance, after all the EEZ principle applies equally to these smaller claimant countries as well, and they must be expecting a just and legitimate space in SCS.

2. The US-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands in February was seen as an unprecedented gathering between the US and ASEAN to be held on American soil. The summit was described by US officials as part of the country’s “pivot to Asia ” strategy. Has the US intervention caused a shift among the Southeast Asian countries in hardening their stance against China on the South China Sea ?

Answer 2

In strategic power play the US also tried to get ASEAN on board through  US- ASEAN summit in Sunny lands, however it could not get a joint statement to prevent China’s aggressive action on construction of infrastructure on disputed islands/shoals or reefs, or against any aggressive behavior of China.  However her ‘Pivot of Asia’ strategy, increasing density of combat ships in Pacific Ocean, strategic partnerships, TPP and other measures are proving effective.  The strategic  and military posturing in SCS, arms transfer to some of Chinese neighbors, together with series of Freedom of Navigation exercises with Chinese neighbors, have definitely caused a shift amongst some of the South Eastern Countries in hardening their stance towards their claims e.g. Philippines fighting it out in International Court of Justice.  However most of the countries are in need of economic help of China and not in a position to confront them directly, but they will keep their claims alive, with hardened stance. They would therefore look forward for greater US presence, which does instill some more confidence in them, and greater opposition from other users of SCS. The countries in ASEAN, who do not have conflicting claim with China in SCS will try to get the best of both China, as well as US.

3. As the tension over the South China Sea escalates, do you think the Southeast Asian countries are pressured into taking side as to either support China and the US ? Has there been a consensus among the Southeast Asian countries regarding the South China Sea disputes? What are the factors for consideration before the countries take their stance?

Answer 3

I do not think that South Asian countries (except those who had already taken sides before the SCS dispute) are or will be pressurized into taking side of US or China. China needs them for strategic and economic reasons (May not want them to go into US Strategic orbit, and needs some of them for success of Belt and Road Initiative besides offloading overcapacities and trade surpluses).  US also wants them the similar reasons i.e. incorporate them into their sphere of strategic and economic influence. These South Asian countries can therefore calibrate their diplomatic policies accordingly.  In fact they do get some kind of strategic leverage to get the best out of both the strategic competitors i.e. US and China.

These South Asian countries can therefore calibrate their diplomatic policies accordingly. In fact they do get some kind of strategic leverage to get the best out of both the strategic competitors i.e. US and China. In fact some of these affected countries would already be thinking and acting on it.  Let us take the case of Vietnam. It has one of the lowest per capita GDP in the region, and needs finances for investment and infrastructure build up for development. It therefore needs to look at China as well as US. With rising tensions due to military posturing in SCS, their diplomacy was so calibrated, that the stance of China towards Vietnam witnessed significant softness, despite being long time adversaries, and having dispute in SCS. The visit by General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang to Beijing, and President Xi Jinping’s return visit to Hanoi in November 2015, indicates mutual interests, as China also needs countries to offload her overcapacities and trade surpluses.

On the other side, in March 2016, Vietnam inaugurated an international dual use port facility, capable of receiving foreign warships at Cam Ranh Bay, a deep-water harbor in central Vietnam along the South China Sea, It may become capable of accommodating  and providing logistics support to US/Japanese ships and submarines, as well as increase naval engagements with foreign countries, amid China’s continued infrastructure construction in disputed reefs in SCS, besides improving Vietnam’s commercial attractiveness as a hub for ships. This is also relevant in context of China’s Maritime Silk Road passing close by, thus adding on further to strategic posturing. On commercial side, Vietnam has signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with US, along with other ten countries. With likely visit of President Obama in near future, hopes are high for better defence and financial cooperation. It is therefore possible that by carefully calibrating diplomatic relations with US as well China without crossing any red line, Vietnam may be able to get the best of two.

There seems to be fair amount of perceptual, as well as diplomatic behavioral differences amongst Southeast Asian countries concerning SCS.  In fact SCS dispute divides them into three categories based on various factors enumerated below:-

  • First category is those, who have direct conflicting claims over various islands. Shoals and reefs with China. They are looking for outside support without annoying China beyond a point, but retaining their claim.
  • Second category is those, who have moral and material support of US, and are seen clearly in US strategic orbit, seeking their help to control the aggressive moves of China i.e. stop reclamation activities.  Similar few countries are clearly siding China for their own national interests.
  • Third category is those who are in the region, affected by the power-play, but are fence sitters, trying to extract best from China and US. They will not like to be seen taking any side for any strong move by either side. They would continue to quote Declaration of Conduct (DoC), and Code of Conduct(CoC), whenever their stance is asked for.


4. Do you think regional organizations such as ASEAN can play a bigger role in mediating the maritime disputes? Southeast Asian defense ministers agreed in November last year to establish a hotline enabling them to communicate quickly and to prevent unintended incidents in the high seas. Do you think regional initiatives or mechanism like this can effectively prevent further escalation of tensions?

Answer 4

In continuation to my response to Question 3, I would say that ASEAN as an organisation has countries with different national interest with respect to SCS dispute as categorised above.  Their consensus  is very limited to innocent looking documents like DoC and CoC, which are ineffective to stop Chinese reclamation activities and claim up to Nine dash line or US fleet deployment to repeatedly prove the point of ‘Freedom of Navigation in International Waters’.  For the time being the helplessness of the organization is fairly visible.  Soon US as well as China, will like to use ASEAN to their strategic advantage, hence a mediation role is very much a possibility  for ASEAN.  China, as well as the US will try to increase their strategic influence over ASEAN, which can be used to broker regional peace.  After all organisations like Organisation  of African Unity (OAU), did broker peace in Africa in some cases, on which UN could build up later. e.g. Ethiopia and Eritrea.

General Comments

The magnitude of power play currently is well beyond the regional domain.  If bulk of the trade of the world passes through SCS, the world community will not like to see SCS as China’s lake or US Lake. Although China has never interfered with freedom of navigation of any merchandise ship so far, but if their claim to Nine dash line and most of SCS is not questioned, it may lay restrictions in  future, thus  choking the global SLOC, which is not in the interest of the world trade.  There are enough international laws already existing, and every user of SCS, would like to see SCS issue being resolved in accordance with international laws, with no restrictions on freedom of navigation on international waters, right of passage and over flight, and unimpeded commercial move in this region of the world, as any other region in accordance with 1982 UN Convention on the Laws of Sea. Besides US ‘Rebalancing Strategy’, their strategic and military posturing, activities like India-Japan Agreement on Freedom of Navigation signed last year are irksome to China, but they also show global concern and dimension of the issue. Beijing may reject the court’s authority/decision, but under the pressure mounting ahead of a ruling widely expected to go against it, Beijing has intensified its efforts to seek allies worldwide, especially in regional domain, where she feels she has maximum influence. A rejection of international court arbitration decision will also raise questions on her being a responsible nation, and should similar problem come up elsewhere in the world, where Chinese SLOC comes under the threat of choking, China would find it morally difficult to fall back to same international laws, which it opposed. Another important factor for Chinese planners to deliberate is, that today the US has better capability of global security deployment, and China will need more time to catch up on global Naval deployment capability, outside her neighborhood, therefore are her offensive gestures in SCS badly timed, (especially with North Korean problem yet to be resolved) or otherwise? Has China created more enemies or friends by these recent actions?

It is reasonable to assume that any strategic scenario (cost-benefit) analysis will deduce that US and China will not go for war over SCS, but it will be interesting to watch that between these two major strategic competitors in that region, whoever finally ends up making more friends than enemies, would have played his strategic cards better.

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran)

(The views expressed are purely my personal views, and do not represent the views of any organisation. I can be reached as Shashi Asthana on Facebook, LinkedIn, youtube and Google+, and asthana_shashi on Twitter website 


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