China Pushes on the South China Sea, ASEAN Unity Collapses
By: Ian Storey (The Jamestown Foundation)
China and ASEAN Much Further Apart than the Smiles Suggest
For more than two decades Beijing has pursued a consistent policy in the South China Sea composed of two main elements: gradually strengthening the country's territorial and jurisdictional claims while at the same time endeavoring to assure Southeast Asian countries of its peaceful intentions.
Recent moves by China to bolster its maritime claims have brought the first element into sharp relief, while reassurances of benign intent have, however, been in short supply. Indeed, far from assuaging Southeast Asian concerns regarding its assertive behavior, China has fuelled them by brazenly exploiting divisions within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to further its own national interests.
Commentaries in China's state-run media analyzing the South China Sea issue have become markedly less conciliatory. Opinion pieces highlight several new themes in China's official line. One theme is that China's territory, sovereignty as well as its maritime rights and interests increasingly are being challenged by Southeast Asian nations and Japan in the South and East China Seas. China's response, it is argued, should be to uphold its claims more vigorously, increase its military presence in contested waters, and, if necessary, be prepared to implement coercive measures against other countries. As one commentary notes "Cooperation must be in good faith, competition must be strong, and confrontation must be resolute" (Caixin, July 13).
Another theme is that, while China has shown restraint, countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam have been pursuing provocative and illegal actions in a bid to "plunder" maritime resources such as hydrocarbons and fisheries which China regards as its own (China Daily, July 30).
A third theme is that Manila and Hanoi continue to encourage U.S. "meddling" in the South China Sea and that the United States uses the dispute as a pretext to "pivot" its military forces toward Asia (Global Times, July 11). To reverse these negative trends, Chinese commentators have urged the government to adopt more resolute measures toward disputed territories and maritime boundaries. Nationalist sentiment, they argue, demands no less.
Recent measures undertaken by the Chinese authorities do indeed suggest a more hard-line position. Ominously, some of the initiatives have included a strong military element, presumably as a warning to the other claimants that China is ready to play hardball.
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Posted by: Water Modem