Communist China has scored another significant blow in its expansionist drive to establish sovereignty – and military bases – athwart the critical South China Sea naval passage.
Beijing’s game was subtle but it could be decisive in blocking a joint effort by the Southeast Asians backed by the U.S. to resist further Chinese penetration.
It’s generally believed in Asia that the Chinese used powerful persuasive weapons to force the Southeast Asians to back off a public statement condemning Chinese policy and action. Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Countries [ASEAN] withdrew their prepared statement which was to conclude their annual meeting with the Chinese in Kunming in south China,
The statement had expressed concern over developments [initiated by the Chinese although they were not named] that had “eroded trust and confidence”. It also stressed the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight of the South China Sea. The statement insisted that resolution of the Chinese claims to reefs a thousand miles from the China Mainland, which it has been enhancing and expanding into military bases, should be submitted to international arbitration. The whole process recalls Soviet [and Chinese] “salami” tactics by first establishing themselves in disputed areas and then forcing acceptance of Chinese sovereignty, as part of a new bargain to be negotiated.
The Philippines has taken its protests against further Chinese expansion to The World Court in The Hague. The move had the general support of the other ASEAN states – Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma – in an effort to halt further Chinese construction and expansion over their own claims. But China [with support from Russia] has refused to acknowledge the Court’s jurisdiction.
Malaysia’s foreign ministry announced the statement had been retracted only a few hours after it had been issued. The statement had made the continuing arguments of ASEAN backed by the U.S. that argued for the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight of the South China Sea, and called for disputes to be resolved in accordance with international law.
There was a consensus that China had put pressure and made overtures bilaterally to the individual countries – using its growing economic and political penetration of the region – to force withdrawal of the statement. Chinese spokesmen were quick, however, to deny that there had been Chinese pressure to withdraw the document.
In fact, the unity of the ASEAN countries on the issue has been constantly eroding over the last few months despite Washington’s efforts to support a united front against Chinese aggression. As far back as the 2012 annual meeting of the ASEAN group, they disbanded without a final statement because members could not agree on wording regarding the China issue. Some have seen the $2.3 billion acquisition of Malaysian State Fund’s 1MDB energy assets by China General Nuclear Power Corp as part of the background for Kuala Lumpur’s taking the lead in backtracking from the statement.
ASEAN’s original statement had the full backing of the Obama Administration which has sought Southeast Asian unity as a hedge against Beijing’s expansion into the area. And it could only be seen as another defeat for the Obama Administration in its effort to pursue a general strategy of withdrawal from what the President views as the U.S. record of provocation and overseas overextension. Washington has been counting on ASEAN to maintain a unified front against Beijing even though there are contradictory claims among them over the disputed territories.
Among the interpretations of this diplomatic coup for the Chinese will be an increasing perception of weakening American power in the western Pacific despite the U.S. long-term insistence on freedom of the seas.