Engaging China in the South China Sea conflict by BAMBAMG HARTADI NUGROHO

17/7/110 nhận xét

[JP] THE issue of the South China Sea again drew public attention last month. The overlapping claims over a body of water located south of the People’s Republic of China among six countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and China itself – has become a serious strategic concern because it involves a regional rising power whose attitude and intentions remain in the shadows despite years of interaction with the international community.

To complicate things, the conflict almost certainly will be a magnet for the involvement of the United States as a global power.

What is interesting to look at in this conflict is how the adversaries perceive China’s attitude toward the case, which in turn will determine how they will respond and choose the best mechanism in managing the conflict.

As a rising power, China has attracted interest and curiosity from many, including policy-makers and scholars. One of the biggest concerns regarding China’s rise is what kind of new power it will become, and what kind of behaviour it will show once it has become one. Such concerns weigh on the longstanding fear and animosity among South-East Asian countries about China, due to the past experience of the spread of communism in the region.

In 2007, Avery Goldstein proposed two alternatives to explain the rise of China. The first one sees China’s rise as a possible way toward a power transition, particularly in East and South-East Asia.

Quoting the hegemonic stability theory, this argument sees that China’s rise might indicate that the country is progressing toward replacing the US’ role as a regional – or even global – hegemon.

In the case of the South China Sea dispute, such a perspective sees it as China’s efforts to get out of the security architecture in the region which has always been under the US’ security umbrella. One might see China’s long-term strategy as developing its blue water navy as a strong indicator of this future projection.

On the other hand, Goldstein also proposes a more optimistic view of China’s rise. This outlook does not necessarily believe that China is undergoing a completely peaceful rise, but it negates the fear that most countries experience toward the Asian giant.

It is argued that despite its often hard stance on certain issues, including territorial sovereignty, recent development shows that China has been willing to engage in several multilateral mechanisms and institutions. People see China’s accession to the WTO as a significant event that supports such arguments.

Toward Asean, China’s eagerness to be engaged in multilateral mechanisms can be seen for instance by acceding to the Treaty of Amity of Cooperation (TAC) in 2003, the first among the major countries. One year before, it also ensured its conformity to the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) regarding the South China Sea dispute.

Non-legally binding as they may be, the signing of both the TAC and DOC indicates China’s goodwill to create a stable and peaceful region.

Despite having no legal obligation toward the arrangements, China indeed has a political responsibility to act in accordance to what they have previously agreed.

In less formal situations, China has also participated in a series of workshops on the South China Sea (SCSW) by sending scholars and officials.

With the two paradigms on the table, it is now up to Asean to decide which to believe, and in turn, act in accordance. It appears from the current situation, however, that Asean’s stance is ambivalent. There is a notable gap between Asean’s position as a group, and individual policies of its members.

As a group, Asean has been trying to engage China in multilateral mechanisms, as previously mentioned. The organisational stance is to solve the problem through political and peaceful ways.

Then again, when it comes to the individual members, some of the claimants often indicate their inclination toward military means. Military cooperation with the US, particularly in the form of joint military exercises in or near the disputed area, can be deemed reckless, considering the already heated situation.

Such actions clearly undermine Asean’s efforts to find a political solution to the case and might send the wrong message to their common adversary – China. It can also be inferred that Asean members that happen to be the claimants either have a different way of looking at China, or have miscalculated the situation.

Asean’s preference to find political instead of military solutions for disputes is not only due to their commitment toward a peaceful settlement, but also by the realisation of their limited power compared to other major countries, even as a collective. Asean realises that they have no chance to stand in a military confrontation against China in the South China Sea; hence they resort to political solutions.

Such a condition, however unfavourable, provides Asean countries with very limited options to create a strategy vis-à-vis China in this case. For instance, albeit the individual members’ personal interests in the dispute or perspective toward China, they have no other option other than to stick to the collective stance of Asean; that is, to continue pursuing a political and peaceful solution to the dispute.

Many scholars’ counsel to maintain the US’ involvement in this case must be interpreted as continuing its commitment and participation in multilateral dialogue forums to discuss the case; not its contribution in military exercises, let alone operations.

Regardless of the very nature of its rise, China in fact considers territorial sovereignty as an essential matter and, just as any other country, may defend its territory with all of its capacity when faced with aggravation. China’s reaction – the official statement and the launch of its patrol ship – soon after Vietnam’s military exercise is a plain indicator of such a possibility.

Once again, it is up to Asean countries, particularly the claimants, which option they will choose. Nonetheless, the smart choice is to continue engaging China in multilateral arrangements while restraining themselves from doing provocative actions in the disputed area. With reciprocity as a basic principle, it is hard to expect China to behave if Asean countries themselves cannot. – Asia News Network

The writer is an assistant lecturer and researcher at the Department of International Relations, University of Indonesia.
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