After years of negotiations, China and ASEAN have agreed on a single negotiating text for a code of conduct in the South China Sea and a path for future rounds of negotiations. While those are definitely achievements worth commending, the impression of peace generated by recent developments says a lot about China’s changing strategy in the South China Sea.
By now, most seasoned observers would be familiar with the ongoing argument between China and the United States about who is militarising the South China Sea. Earlier this year, the US Department of Defense disinvited the Chinese navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific exercise, citing China’s continued militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea. That move understandably annoyed Beijing.
Since the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in favour of the Philippines, China has actively engaged in a campaign to restore its image among ASEAN countries by affecting a more cooperative stance on the issue. In April 2017, China reopened the Scarborough Shoal to Philippine fishing vessels, which had been barred from the area following a tense two-month standoff in 2012. Economic initiatives for Southeast Asia were liberally poured out through the Belt and Road Initiative.
China also agreed to restart negotiations for the code of conduct, which had been stalled since the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002. Earlier this month, the table-top phase of the inaugural ASEAN–China maritime exercise was held in Singapore. These olive branches from Beijing were generally well received in the various ASEAN capitals, and China is keen to maintain the goodwill it has generated over the past year.
At the same time, many ASEAN countries have begun to question the US commitment to the region. America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and initiation of a trade war with China were not well received in the region. Beijing has skillfully capitalised on Washington’s negative publicity to portray itself as the more constructive power in the region.
It was no surprise, then, that at the 25th ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once again took aim at US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). He counter-accused the US of being a destabilising force in the region, saying that “some countries outside the region wilfully show off their military power in the South China Sea, thus becoming the biggest driving force behind the regional militarisation.”
Meanwhile, many issues remain to be ironed out during subsequent negotiations on the code of conduct, including its legal status and geographic coverage. If the history of the negotiations for the 2002 declaration is anything to go by, the road to finalising the code is likely to be a long one.
But it’s unlikely that China will try to draw out the negotiations. Chinese island-building in the South China Sea appears to be almost complete, and there’s no reason for China to obstruct the negotiation process further. Beijing has arrived at a crossroads in its approach to the South China Sea.
Although China will continue deploying more hard weaponry to the artificial islands, it has already started using softer, more subtle means of asserting sovereignty over the disputed features. On July 5, the Department of Ocean and Fisheries of Hainan Province released the approval mechanism for the development of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea. Units and individuals will be allowed to apply for development of these islands, for purposes ranging from aquaculture to the construction of ports and shipyards, for periods of 15 to 50 years. By granting rights to development, China has in fact normalised its jurisdiction over these features. The lack of open protest from the ASEAN claimants arguably helps strengthen Chinese claims.
Non-military measures are slowly becoming a core strategy for China in its attempt to alter the status quo in the South China Sea, as it moves from a pure military approach to a dual-pronged approach. The strategy of strengthening the civilian presence in the South China Sea dates back to 2012, when the city of Sansha was established. This approach attracts less criticism, allowing China to achieve the same objective without risking its image. Focusing on civilian development also helps strengthen the narrative of US FONOPs as the main culprit of militarisation.
In the future, we’re likely to see more of China’s soft aggressiveness in the South China Sea, including cruise tourism to the disputed areas. As regional countries get caught up with the code of conduct negotiations, there’s a risk that Southeast Asia will lose sight of the broader picture in the South China Sea. ASEAN can’t neglect this developing trend.
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