Home' Policy Magazine : Policy Vol 34 - No 1 Contents 49
POLICY • Vol. 34 No. 1 • Autumn 2018
DAVID MARTIN JONES
Scarborough shoals in the Spratly Island chain in
2012 announced the harder line. In response, the
ASEAN members divided, failing for the first time
to agree on a post-summit communiqué at the
annual Foreign Ministers’ Summit in June 2012.
Shortly afterwards, Philippine President Aquino
ditched the ASEAN process, referring the dispute
with China to the Hague’s International Tribunal
for the Law of the Sea. In July 2016 the Tribunal
found that China’s claim to 85% of the South
China Sea had ‘no legal basis’. China dismissed the
decision as ‘preposterous’.
Policymakers nevertheless continue to assert their
confidence in ASEAN’s processes. As the situation
evolved between 2012 and 2018, China applied a
compelling mixture of smile and frown diplomacy.
At the Brunei Summit in October 2013, the PRC
proposed a new treaty of friendship, ushering in a
‘diamond decade’. As The Straits Times observed,
‘the implicit message was that China had sufficiently
deep pockets’ to offer a ‘slew of sweeteners in the
form of billion dollars of development projects’.
These deep pockets appeared to convince the new
Philippine President Duterte, in a stunning about-
face in 2016, to dismiss the Hague ruling in return
for the promise of Chinese investment.
China’s diplomacy has caused a ‘sea change’
in the regional strategic balance. Hence although
Chinese premier Li Keqiang envisages a ‘common
destiny’, it is also one of asymmetric dependence.
China’s understanding of regionalism assumes a
Chinese core operating across its Southeast Asian
periphery. The relationship is one of reciprocity, but
failure to respect China invokes the frown. Thus
when the Philippines or Vietnam reject China’s
interpretation of its history and territory, they suffer
sanctions in terms of investment and market access.
Chinese statecraft has fragmented ASEAN,
sucking Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and more
recently Malaysia into its orbit. Vietnam gravitates
to the US, whilst Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and
the Philippines hedge between the US and China.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s foreign policy oscillates
between indifference and ambiguity. Rather than
advancing regional norms, ASEAN now finds itself
between a rock and a hard place. As former ASEAN
Secretary General Ong Keng Yong observed ‘in
crude terms’, China was ‘doing divide and rule’.
The South China Sea dispute demonstrates how
a more powerful actor, China—unconstrained by
ASEAN’s norms—advances its grand strategic
design, gaining control of both the maritime and
economic space in a manner familiar to players
of Weiqi (Go), where each side tries to achieve
relative advantage through strategic encirclement. A
talented player moves into the ‘empty’ spaces on the
board, gradually mitigating the strategic potential
of the adversary.
Principled realism or regionalism?
The incoherence of ASEAN’s response to a range
of security and economic issues exposes the
multilateralist delusion that norms can transform
interests into a shared regional identity. It has also
given the PRC a taste for multilateralism a la Chine,
manipulating international institutions to its own
purposes and exploiting the Trump administration’s
growing dissatisfaction with the multilateral regimes
like the UN and WTO that the US established after
In Southeast Asia—as will soon become clear to
Europeans—middle powers and weaker states need
to recognise the first principle of diplomacy, namely
that a great power can only be balanced by a great
power. The smaller and weaker ASEAN states, as
the South China Sea dispute demonstrates, cannot
balance China alone. ASEAN states therefore need
Moreover, the US has never sought to contain
China’s rise. What does concern the US, however, is
regional balance. With North Korea and maritime
and trade tensions making the headlines, the US
presence is necessary to protect regional freedoms
that China’s actions jeopardise. The US has a stake
both in reassuring its allies and protecting its trade
with the most vibrant region of the world economy.
However, Trump’s unpredictability worries its
regional allies, even, it would seem, in Australia.
The South China Sea dispute demonstrates
how a more powerful actor, China, advances
its grand strategic design, gaining control of
both the maritime and economic space in a
manner familiar to players of Weiqi (Go).
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