The state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the United States last September surpassed expectations—and it placed the personal relationship between the Chinese leader and US President Barack Obama on an even firmer footing. But tensions over China’s expansive claims over the South China Sea continue to bedevil Chinese-American relations, as well as Beijing’s relations with other countries with an interest in the South China Sea.
This tension was thrown into sharp relief yet again when a conference of defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, meeting last Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur with the defense chiefs of the United States, Japan, India and China, failed to issue a joint statement. The reason: China did not want the statement to include any mention of the South China Sea disputes, while other participants wanted a consideration of the issue.
“The decision was made by Asean [to forego a joint statement] because there is no consensus, so no joint declaration [was] signed,” host Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defense minister, told reporters.
Reuters, interviewing an American official, reported that the Chinese delegation had lobbied Asean members hard “to avoid any reference” to the conflicting maritime claims—the same tack that Beijing followed in 2012, in Phnom Penh, when for the first time ever in Asean summitry, the 10-nation organization failed to issue a joint communiqué. The reason then: Beijing did not want any reference to the South China Sea issue.
This is not the way forward for China.
The last several days have been a test for the emerging superpower, and it has not fared well. To be sure, the very reason for the test was China’s misguided sense of
assertive nationalism, which led it to lay claim to most of the South China Sea. This was, in truth, the cause of the problem. But Beijing could have handled the test differently, and failed.
In the first place, its aggressive land reclamation program in the Spratlys necessitated an American response. Indeed, the flexing of American naval muscle—the US Navy sailed within the 12-mile zone of Subi Reef, an artificially enlarged islet, in what was called a Freedom of Navigation operation—was only to be expected. But it generated an intense backlash in the Chinese mainland, against the Chinese government! What is that saying about riding a tiger? Extreme nationalism can be difficult to dismount from.
The decision of the Arbitral Tribunal hearing the case that the Philippines filed against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which favored Manila by ruling that the tribunal had jurisdiction over the case, was another humiliation. It undermined Beijing’s strategy of noncooperation, and called into question the wisdom of ignoring the processes of an international treaty to which Beijing is a signatory.
Perhaps its officials attending the traditional meeting in Kuala Lumpur were not ready for a third embarrassment, hence the hardline stance. (It is a stance, however, which really only works in consensus-only associations like Asean.) But in creating the conditions that allowed the conference to fail in one routine aspect, Beijing dealt itself an even bigger embarrassment.
A joint communiqué from such a diverse group of officials would have included, at most, a general statement about the South China Sea issue and perhaps an expression of resolve that the issue would be settled peacefully and efficiently. Beijing itself has made that exact same commitment to the Asean nations, and would have earned goodwill for repeating it.
But instead, it chose to play the silent card—like an unwelcome guest at a party—rather than step into the role of a leading regional player.
In the same week that Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan warned his American counterpart that the Chinese “people and military will not stand for any infringements of China’s sovereignty and relevant interests,” the lobbying effort in Kuala Lumpur proved that, like a rider astride a tiger, Beijing is finding it difficult to get back down.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.