PETER HARTCHER July 17, 2012
Illustration: John Shakespeare
If there had been any doubt about China's determination to aggressively pursue its claims to huge swaths of contested territory in the resource-rich seas of the Asia-Pacific, there's no doubt now.
Beijing is barrelling ahead with new force. In the past few days it has made new deployments of ships, but its greatest success has been in the diplomatic conference halls of the region.
The deployments are deliberately provocative. Beijing angered the Philippines by sending 30 fishing vessels to contested waters in the South China Sea last week just as a major regional meeting of foreign ministers was about to discuss the dispute.
Separately last week, China angered Japan by ordering three government fisheries vessels to disputed waters in the East China Sea. Again, it acted even as its Foreign Minister was about to meet his Japanese counterpart to discuss the matter. A furious Japan recalled its ambassador for consultations in response.
Rival vessels, usually civilian but sometimes military, have clashed in at least 22 serious incidents in the South China Sea in the past three years over contested claims, mostly involving Chinese shipping in conflict with Filipino or Vietnamese vessels, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
And while none of the disputants is entirely blameless, China's latest behaviour demonstrates that it is not in a conciliatory frame of mind. If anything, Beijing is quite prepared to inflame the situation.
Could this be a misinterpretation of amiable Chinese intentions? The answer came resoundingly last week at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, the area's main gathering to discuss political and security issues.
ASEAN is the 10-nation grouping of the countries of south-east Asia - Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
In recent years it has insisted on being the central mechanism for mediating regional disputes.
The US decided to take ASEAN seriously. The Obama administration coached ASEAN to stand up to China en bloc by crafting a code of conduct for dealing with disputes in the South China Sea.
The aim was to reduce tension. By putting all 10 ASEAN members on one side of the table and China on the other, the south-east Asians would have much greater heft in dealing with Beijing collectively.
''No nation can fail to be concerned by the increase in tensions, the uptick in confrontational rhetoric and disagreement over resource exploitation,'' the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said, as she egged them on last week. It was important, she said, that the disputes be resolved ''without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without use of force''.
Other regional countries, including India, Australia and South Korea, also willed ASEAN to tackle the issue. The ASEAN bloc in general, and the code of conduct in particular, were to be the central diplomatic defence against Chinese aggression. But the Chinese had other ideas.
Beijing split ASEAN spectacularly last Thursday. A meeting of its foreign ministers not only failed to agree on the code of conduct, but also failed for the first time in ASEAN's 45-year history to agree on a standard communique to record its discussion.
Using its considerable influence over the host country, Cambodia, China effectively wielded a veto on ASEAN. By blocking even a communique, it censored any official record that the South China Sea disputes were even discussed.
Beijing pushed through the central diplomatic defence against its assertiveness as easily as if it were wet rice paper.
The chairman, Cambodia's Foreign Affairs Minister, Hor Namhong, told reporters after the meeting that he ruled out a communique because ''I have told my colleagues that the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers is not a court, a place to give a verdict about the dispute''. The Philippines' Foreign Affairs Secretary, Albert Del Rosario, said he had ''simply wanted the fact that we discussed the issue and it should be reflected in the joint communique, no more, no less. It would have just been a simple sentence or paragraph in the communique.''
When the Philippines and Vietnam failed to persuade Hor, Indonesia and Singapore argued for a compromise. But, according to The New York Times, ''the Cambodian picked up his papers, and stormed out of the room.'' Quoting an unnamed diplomat, the American newspaper said ''China bought the chair, simple as that''.
In this way, China made a mockery of ASEAN solidarity and flummoxed the US. ''China has thrown down the gauntlet,'' says Mike Green, formerly the director of Asia policy in the George W. Bush White House and co-author of a forthcoming report to the US Congress on American strategy in the South China Sea. ''It shows that ASEAN centrality has an easy and early breaking point. This is not the only way to deal with China's ambitions, but it was an important one.''
Green, who supports the Obama strategy in the South China Sea, suspects China's thinking was that, if it could defeat this initiative developed under Hillary Clinton's tutelage, it could defer the entire confrontation to the term of the next US secretary of state. With elections due in November, Clinton plans to step down.
''China has won a tactical victory, but a strategic defeat,'' Green argues. ''Because this will increase the instinct of the other countries in the region to keep the US in.''
He predicts the US will respond by further intensifying its alliances and by seeking to help countries that are in dispute with China.
Meanwhile, China is pressing ahead with bracing advice to the weakest countries it confronts in its territorial disputes. According to state media, China's Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, told the Philippines last week it had to ''face facts squarely and not to make trouble''.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.