Will China’s realpolitik prevail in sea row?

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As ASEAN meetings kick off in Vientiane from July 23, Beijing may pressure the host Laos and its other ally Cambodia to prevent any strong statements on the South China Sea disputes and the landmark ruling by the Hague tribunal. Such pressure tactics pose a threat to the very unity and existence of the regional organization. This will push its members to seek closer ties with the US which is not good for China in the long run.

ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and other key ASEAN-related meetings – including East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a 27-member security dialogue – will be held from July 23-26 in Vientiane, Laos, ASEAN’s current chair.

ASEAN Member Flags

China’s interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN has already upset many members

These meetings, which gather 10 ASEAN foreign ministers and their counterparts from the US, China and many other non-ASEAN members, are likely to be dominated by the recent landmark ruling on the South China Sea.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the 49th AMM and its ASEAN-led meetings will issue any official statements on either the ruling or the maritime disputes in this sea.

The issuance or non-issuance of such statements will reveal how ASEAN and other regional countries respond to the disputes in the post-ruling period. It will also provide an indication of whether China will continue – and succeed in – its power politics approach to the South China Sea issue.

For decades, and especially in recent years, thanks to its hugely economic and military superiority, China visibly adopted a power-based posture or a “might-makes-right” policy in the South China Sea.

For instance, instead of following the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it primarily based its claim to about 85% of the sea on its so-called “historic rights” and “nine-dash line.”

It also acted forcefully to assert its “historic rights” to resources within that infamous “nine-dash line” by undertaking a wide range of offensive activities – for instance, large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands – in the disputed waters.

By ruling that those claims and behaviors are illegal under UNCLOS, the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands, delivered a stinging rebuke to Beijing’s hitherto “might-makes-right” policy in the South China Sea.

However, while it has the authority to deliver such a ruling, the arbitral tribunal, like many other international courts, does not have the power to enforce its ruling on China. Whether China will comply with it depends significantly on how much it is pressured to do so.

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This explains why Beijing has, so far, vehemently rejected the court and its ruling and strongly used its huge economic advantages to shore up international support for its position.

China’s diplomatic offensive

Judging by the reactions of some organizations and countries to the tribunal ruling, China has achieved some success in its diplomatic offensive.

The 11th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM, a biennial summit of Asian and European leaders), in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, from July 15-16, did not directly mention the South China Sea dispute in its closing statement.

The European Union (EU) was only able to issue a statement on the South China Sea ruling on July 15, three days after the PCA published its award. Moreover, this declaration made by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative, on behalf of the 28-member bloc, did not directly name China.

The EU, which is an ardent advocate of the rule of law, failed to release an immediate – and more strongly-worded – statement on the Hague ruling because Croatia, Hungary and Greece reportedly blocked it.

These small EU members, notably the latter, are facing many economic problems and seeking closer economic ties with Beijing.

While the EU managed to issue a common – though rather weak by its standards – statement on the PCA’s award, ASEAN has conspicuously failed to do so.

It is reported that ASEAN actually drafted a statement but eventually abandoned it due to lack of consensus among its 10 members.

The objection of Cambodia and Laos, both of which are Beijing’s allies and largely depend on it economically, is seen as the reason behind ASEAN’ “no-statement” or “no-comment.”

That Beijing uses its economic influence to lobby its two small and poor neighbors and that it exploits ASEAN’s consensus, the regional grouping’s modus operandi, to divide ASEAN on the South China Sea issue is universally recognized.

In 2012, ASEAN failed – for the first time in its history – to issue a joint communiqué after its AMM in Cambodia. Last month, for the second time, it was unable to agree on a joint statement after a special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming, China. In fact, it released a statement but retracted it immediately afterward.

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ASEAN unity under threat

Beijing will undoubtedly use its economic leverage to lobby the host and its other allies, e.g. Cambodia, at the upcoming meetings to prevent any strong declarations on the disputes and the ruling in particular.

If China succeeds in doing so, which will likely result in ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint statement for the third time, the regional organization’s unity, centrality and even its existence are greatly threatened.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, for the grouping to maintain its centrality in the Asia-Pacific’s evolving regional architecture if it is continuously split and manipulated by a powerful outsider.

Its relevance is also greatly questioned if it ignores the South China Sea disputes, which are probably the region’s biggest security concern. Moreover, four ASEAN members – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – are directly involved in the disputes.

As it is also seeking to establish and advocate for a rules-based regional order, ASEAN cannot be silent on a ruling by an international court established under aegis of UNCLOS.

Unfortunately, judging by Cambodia’s statement made on the eve of the PCA’s publication of its findings, that it “will not join in expressing any common position on the verdict”, it is almost impossible for ASEAN to reach a joint statement on the ruling in Laos in the coming days.

This also means China is again able to undermine ASEAN’s role in settling the South China Sea disputes.

However, it does not imply that Beijing’s realpolitik really trumps international law in the South China Sea.

In fact, the achievements of its diplomatic offensive have not been so decisive.

Though it did not directly mention China, in its statement on the PCA’s award, the EU clearly called for what China strongly opposes. It expressed “the need for the parties to … clarify their claims and pursue them in respect and in accordance with international law, including the work in the framework of UNCLOS.”

Alhough it did not make any reference to the South China Sea disputes, the statement of the 11th ASEM summit highlighted “the critical importance of … refraining from the use or threat of force, and of disputes being resolved in accordance with principles of international law, the UN Charter and … UNCLOS.”

ASEAN’s withdrawal of the statement on the South China Sea last month or its “no-comment” on the ruling does not mean that it is unconcerned with the maritime disputes or not receptive to the verdict.

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On the contrary, ASEAN’s retracted statement, which is still available online, states that ASEAN countries “cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.”

They also expressed their “serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments” in the sea.

Such a strong and direct language was clearly a rebuke to China and its South China Sea position.

ASEAN had hitherto avoided citing China by name when mentioning the South China Sea issue. Beijing has also always insisted that the maritime disputes are a bilateral issue between it and other South China Sea claimant states, not a matter between China and ASEAN.

ASEAN’s abandoned statement on the PCA’s ruling regarded the court decision as providing “clarification on maritime entitlements under UNCLOS, which could be useful for parties to peacefully settle disputes in the South China Sea.”

All of this shows that ASEAN members – or more exactly most of them – are responsive to the ruling and want the maritime disputes to be resolved as per international law and UNCLOS in particular.

China’s blunt interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN, whose core principle is non-interference, has already alienated many ASEAN members. Its relationship with ASEAN is actually at a very low ebb.

If China continues to pursue its long-held divide-and-rule tactics vis-à-vis ASEAN, it will further anger many ASEAN members and push them to seek closer ties with the US, Beijing’s geopolitical rival. This is not good for China in the long run.

Whatever happens in Vientiane in the coming days, it is no longer business as usual for China. Its realpolitik approach or “might-makes-right” strategy to the South China Sea issue is being questioned and scrutinized. It is also facing huge regional and international pressure. That may eventually prompt it to comply – either partly or fully – with the PCA’s ruling.

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK, in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

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