Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi will spend the weekend travelling to Vietnam and then The Philippines where the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea agreed upon at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Summit held in Singapore in August of this year will be widely discussed.
The agreement made in Singapore will serve as the basis for the rules governing maritime action and connectivity in the South China Sea until a final settlement can be reached on the issue after a period of continued respectful dialogue between Beijing and ASEAN members.
This is a milestone not only because it looks to chart a clear course towards a negotiated settlement regarding the rules of engagement and status of claims in the Sea but it also demonstrates that the quickest and most mutually just path to the harmonisation of cooperation among nations in the South China Sea region is through direct dialogue which is underscored by the reality that China and ASEAN are growing economic partners who can gain much from mutual cooperation and who stand to lose a great deal by succumbing to non-Asian meddling in a regional dispute.
After praising the letter and spirit of the agreement during the ASEAN summit in August, Wang will now have a chance to examine the commitment of both Vietnam and The Philippines to the agreement – the two major non-Chinese claimants to the Sea and countries whose positions on the matter have somewhat swapped over the last two year.
As the country traditionally described as America’s closest south east Asian ally, The Philippines had often been highly assertive regarding claims to the see in-line with America’s own provocative policies in the region. This counterproductive attitude changed upon the election of President Rodrigo Duterte who has exposed the hypocrisy of one of Asia’s weakest powers implementing policies (with apparent earnestness) that could lead to a confrontation with one of the world’s top military and economic superpowers.
Instead of sleepwalking towards a bloodbath of his own people, Duterte pioneered a win-win strategy in which China and The Philippines will mutually exploit the energy and other resources in the Sea in such a manner that prioritises cooperation over suspicion and confrontation.
By contrast, Vietnam has now become the most vocal asserter of claims in the Sea and has been backed up by its 21st century US partner throughout the process. However, with China now representing the number one destination for Vietnamese goods, having overtaken the US in February of this year, Hanoi has recently shown signs of adopting a slightly more Duterte style approach to the dispute.
In this sense, the Duterte spirit of cooperation has now been collectively embraced by ASEAN in the format of the new Code of Conduct agreement between all ASEAN states and China.
Taken in totality this means that what was once limited to a Sino-Philippine agreement over areas of the Sea in and around Philippine maritime territory, has now been expanded to a wider agreement between eleven nations in total. In this sense, President Duterte can be seen as a trail blazer whose profound shift in attitude towards China vis-a-vis most of his predecessors has now be elevated to a multilateral status in the form of the new COC which according to the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister will help pave the way for an expedited final agreement. While Duterte’s domestic opponents accused him of treachery during his bilateral discussions with Beijing, today the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei have all signed a document framed by the same spirit of Sino-ASEAN cooperation that Duterte first instigated.
All that remains to be seen is how much progress Wang will make with Vietnam on the issue. By contrast, his meeting with President Duterte will largely be about organising the specific points of the existing agreements between Manila and Beijing rather than working to achieve a breakthrough. Duterte achieved this breakthrough well before his mentality to the issue was adopted by ASEAN as a whole.
Eurasia Future’s previous analysis about what China seeks in the South China Sea can be read below:
Beijing seeks to confirm its sovereignty over a Sea on its maritime border for the same purposes that in the 1920s, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk sought to confirm the same status over the Turkish Straits. In 1841, the western powers effectively bullied Turkey into signing the London Straits Convention which while confirming the Ottoman Empire’s sovereignty over the Straits, also prohibited any warships other than Ottoman ships from passing through the straits during war time. This had the desired effect of provoking further hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, all the while British and French ships had open access to all sides of the Mediterranean.
After the First World War, the victorious western powers attempted to remove Turkish sovereignty over the Turkish Straits by making them an international zone under no one state’s authority. Ataturk refused and as a result the 1936 Montreux Convention allowed for all nations with ports on the Black Sea to pass through the Turkish Straits in times of war or peace while foreign ships would be banned in war time. It is this convention which continues to govern the status of the Turkish Straits to this day.
In The South China Sea, Beijing wants essentially what Turkey wanted and got in the age of Ataturk. China has no desire to close the South China Sea to the wider world, let alone the ASEAN countries who contest sovereignty over parts of the Sea. Instead, China seeks to use its military might and traditional role as the major power of the region in order to ensure that foreign provocations from powers who do not border the Sea are not able to effectively colonise the South China Sea as the western powers attempted to colonise the Turkish Straits in the early 20th century.
he dominance of US ships in the important Strait of Malacca which links the Asia-Pacific region to the Indian Ocean, has only further served to convince China of the importance of staking its sovereign claims to the South China Sea. Thus, the dispute has nothing to do with what the US deceptively calls “freedom of navigation” but has everything to do with China making sure that in a time of war, it is not a distant foreign superpower that controls crucial sea routes which border China.
To this end, China has always been willing to cooperate with ASEAN members with claims to the Sea just as Ataturk was willing to cooperate with fellow powers with ports on the Black Sea. The recent cooperative endeavours between Philippine President Duterte and the Chinese government over mutual exploitation of South China Sea resources further confirms that China’s attitude is one that is constructive rather than threatening when it comes to working cooperatively with nearby states whose soil borders the Sea.
The only time China would ever militarily confront an ASEAN state over Sea claims is in the event of the US becoming a de-facto military protectorate of an ASEAN state. In this sense, any ASEAN member state that resorts to hiding behind US power instead of negotiating a diplomatic solution to joint South China Sea claims with Beijing, is ultimately signing its death warrant in the event of a wider Sino-US war in the region.
Just as Britain and France were all too happy to see Russia and Ottoman Turkey fight throughout the 18th and 19th centuries while they busily colonised Asia and later Africa too, the US today would be all too happy to see countries like Vietnam or The Philippines fight China with US weapons. This way, the US gets to successfully cause diplomatic and money wasting problems for China, gets to test its weapons against China’s and even if the worst happens. it will be states in south east Asia rather than US soil which will be destroyed in such a conflict.
This is why the best “offence” for ASEAN states that still have disputes with China is a defensive posture not against Beijing but against Washington’s gamesmanship in the region. If the US was removed as a factor in south east Asia, it is certain that China would work with its ASEAN partners to pursue the kind of win-win solutions that Beijing and Manila have embarked on since the arrival of President Duterte and likewise, those embarked on when Ataturk and Lenin ended centuries of mutual hostility between two great Eurasian powers. It is therefore the responsibility of ASEAN nations to maintain good trading relations with both China and the US, but when it comes to military provocations, the best ASEAN can say to the US is “thanks but no thanks”. In signing this agreement, ASEAN has taken an important step towards fomenting an Asian authored, owned and executed peace process.