Why ASEAN should align themselves against China

This excerpt from Gerald Segal's article, "East Asia and the "Constrainment" of China," International Security, Vol. 20, no. 4 (Spring 1996) explains why ASEAN countries need to form 
themselves into a cohesive ally 
in order to fight against Chinese hegemonic ambitions in SEA.

The South China Sea Case

China has never hidden its claim to complete sovereignty in the South China Sea. Ever since China emerged from the distractions of the Cultural Revolution, it has sought carefully to extend its control of these disputed waters.(18) China has insisted on its unshakable legal claim to the region, although it has frustratingly never explained the legal basis of its policy nor defined the precise limits of its claim. China signed but has not yet ratified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing has given no indication that it would accept international arbitration of its claim to sovereignty over every bit of territory in the region. China has been reluctant to take the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in part because, like all the other claimants (Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei), its claim to sovereignty is weak.(19) China has applied the continental shelf principle in defining its maritime claims in the Yellow and East China Sea, but claims the South China Sea on the basis of "historic use and administration."(20) However, China has clearly not had continuous and effective control, administration, and governance of the territory, as the latter principle calls for. And even if some sovereignty claims would be upheld by the court, the tiny outcrops in the sea do not appear to be legally qualified to justify exclusive economic zones of 200 nautical miles or even more extensive continental shelves. Only 26 features in the Spratly group are above water at high tide and the largest has a land area of less than half a square kilometer. None has ever sustained a permanent population. Continental shelf claims from states surrounding the Spratlys are likely to be seen as much stronger by the ICJ.

It appears, as Michael Swaine of the RAND Corporation has suggested, that Chinese claims "have more to do with power than law."(21) Clearly the Chinese do not feel that they have to negotiate with anyone about this issue. The furthest reaches of the South China Sea stretch some 1800 km from undisputed Chinese territory on Hainan island, and touch Natuna island (in the south of the South China Sea) held by Indonesia.(22) China moved south in stages, taking the Paracel islands from Vietnam in 1974, and then building an airstrip on the islands capable of handling fighters and transport aircraft. In the 1980s China extended its control into the more southerly Spratly group. The most publicized clash in the Spratlys came in 1988, when several Vietnamese ships were destroyed in one engagement.

By the early 1990s, the six rival claimants were all busy reinforcing their postures and seeking contracts with foreign firms to explore for oil and gas. In August 1990, Chinese Premier Li Peng declared in Singapore that China was prepared to put aside the question of sovereignty and jointly develop the Spratlys. But it soon became clear that China was not in fact interested in anything that might "internationalize" the problem, and refused any serious efforts at multilateral negotiations.(23) China's position was far better pursued in bilateral relations where it could pick off one rival after another. In October 1991, at an unofficial but Indonesian-sponsored (and Canadian-financed) meeting of the claimants to the Spratlys, China joined in the agreement to resolve matters peacefully and to avoid unilateral action. It seemed as if China would be constrained from extending control of the South China Sea by its concerns about appearing to be a regional bully and about losing the benefits of economic interdependence.

In February 1992 China promulgated the "Law on Territorial Waters and Adjacent Areas," but this was more a political symbol than a necessary legal procedure in the pursuit of territorial claims.(24) In 1992 Chinese officials appeared to accept the terms of a July 22 five-point ASEAN declaration on the South China Sea, which agreed that force should not be used to change the status quo.(25) Beijing agreed that opportunities for joint development should be explored, although China made clear that it agreed to nothing that would constrain its sovereign rights in the region. Various discussions were held, many of the most important ones under the auspices of Indonesia (a non-claimant to the Spratly group), but no agreements were reached.

By 1994 both China and Vietnam were becoming more adept at developing contacts with Western countries and corporations. Vietnam even began to modernize its armed forces, including the acquisition of SU-27 aircraft.(26) Vietnam also grew bolder in asserting its right to explore for oil and gas, and evidence seemed to be growing that there were exploitable reserves in the area.(27) Vietnam was set to join ASEAN (by July 1995) and was feeling far less of a pariah. In August 1994 China grew concerned about Vietnam's oil prospecting activities with foreign companies in the Spratlys; in several incidents in the summer and autumn, Vietnamese forces chased off Chinese boats operating in Vietnamese-controlled waters in the Spratlys.(28) Vietnam was clearly seeking to tie its fate in the South China Sea to that of Western oil companies, hoping thereby to add to its strength and deter China. This was not so much a policy of constraining China through China's interdependence with the outside world, as constraining China through a mixture of precise use of military force and use of Vietnamese interdependence with the outside world. The question was whether this clever strategy was too clever by half, and whether China would be constrained.

The end of 1994 was also a time when China was finding itself in deeper conflict with the West, and the United States in particular, over trade disputes and entry into the WTO. But China got into this problem in part because it was feeling less constrained by the international system. Some Chinese officials had incorrectly calculated that because the United States had recently abandoned the linkage of trade and human rights, Western powers would no longer use the linkage of foreign policy issues to constrain Chinese behavior But the late 1994 trade disputes demonstrated that China was set for a much longer and more complex dispute with the United States on trade issues. This was a difficult time for China, because it was being asked to accept that from now on it would be more, not less, bound by the international system. The Chinese were aware that they were soon to become a major food and fuel importer and thus ever more dependent on the global market for vital supplies.(29) As it could see the implications of becoming more dependent on the outside world, China chose to resist the process as much as it could. The decision to acquire at least 10 (and possibly as many as 22) Kilo-class submarines from Russia was part of a much wider program to modernize Chinese naval forces and extend their power-projection capability.(30) And so, in September 1994 when the Philippine armed forces detained 55 fishermen from China who tried to set up structures on one of the islands claimed by the Philippines, China felt it had to respond. As in the past when China used force to defend what it defined as its national interest, Beijing found itself making policy on the fly.(31)

Although the Spratly islands themselves might not have been very important, the region provided a real test of whether China would be constrained by economic interdependence. While it may not be surprising that China felt it needed to deliver a message that it would not be pushed around, it surprised most observers that China would, for the first time, come into conflict with an ASEAN member The conventional wisdom in East Asia was that China would no doubt continue to take territory claimed by Vietnam, but it would not encroach on territory claimed by ASEAN states. The argument was that China needed to be on good terms with ASEAN states in order to keep the flow of investment and technology from these states. Any use of force against such pro-Western states would also threaten relations with the developed world as a whole. But the conventional wisdom was wrong.

There is little evidence upon which to reconstruct China's decision-making process, but it seems likely that the general propensity to use force to regain territory claimed by China would not have caused much dispute in Beijing. What might well have been more disputatious was the timing and the target. It seems that the specific operation was launched by the Guangzhou Military Region and South China Fleet, even though some, such as the Foreign Ministry, might have been expected to oppose such action at that time. But at a time of uncertainty in Beijing leadership politics, and with some parallels to the 1974 Paracels incident and the 1988 clash with Vietnam in the Spratlys, it would have been more possible for local commanders to operate under what they thought were standard procedures and strategies that did not require formal approval in Beijing.(32)

In choosing to take on an ASEAN state in the South China Sea, China was taking a political risk of souring relations with ASEAN and scaring off foreign investors. On the other hand, in choosing the weakest ASEAN member, the Philippines, China chose the softest target. In choosing the state that had ejected American forces from their bases, it also tested American intentions in the most cautious manner. Thus sometime in the three months before the end of January 1995, China sent at least nine naval vessels to Mischief Reef.(33) This was not the most southerly territory taken by China, but it was the first time it had seized territory claimed by an ASEAN state. Chinese forces arrested Philippine fishermen, built structures on the island, and left troops in place to guard what many analysts expect will turn into a Chinese naval facility and possibly even an airstrip. Philippine forces confirmed the action on February 8 and found they could do nothing to reverse the situation.

What is the significance of the mischief on the reef? The most obvious change in the status quo was that China had unambiguously violated the 1992 ASEAN understanding by using force against an ASEAN member.(34) China claimed that it was only acting in keeping with its sovereign claims; at least for public consumption, it insisted that it had only erected shelters for fishermen. When Western intelligence resources were finally focused on Mischief Reef, it became clear that China had built military structures and stationed People's Liberation Army (PLA) units on a long-term basis. Although Chinese officials admitted in private to Western governments that these were indeed PLA units, in public China continued to assert that this was the benign action of Chinese fishermen and that using force to eject Filipino fishermen was not the same as an attack on an ASEAN member. In any case, China asserted that this was a form of self-defense because the territory was its own. Some Chinese even suggested that the lesson to be learned was the need to expand Chinese forces very rapidly in order to seize the region quickly and thereby avoid such political inconveniences as China would endure in the first half of 1995.(35) China was clearly taking a risk in taking on an ASEAN member and it also risked feeding the sense in the wider world that China would sacrifice economic relations if this were the only way to satisfy territorial claims and obtain vital energy resources. The main question, and the test of the significance of the Mischief Reef operation, depended on the way in which other people reacted to the Chinese operation and whether China had indeed put at risk the benefits of interdependence.

The initial reaction from ASEAN states was stunning silence, or at least the nearest thing to it that diplomats can muster. In private, ASEAN officials were furious that they had been humiliated by China. The Philippines fumed, in part at their own failures, and soon took out their anger by destroying some Chinese markers on other reefs elsewhere in the Spratlys. But what was most striking was the absence of any formal ASEAN complaint that blamed China for breaking the 1992 understanding. Various countries in the region issued statements regretting the rise in tension and calling for all parties to avoid the use of force: hardly statements of robust deterrence. Behind closed doors, ASEAN officials concluded that they could do little about Chinese activity and that therefore discretion was the better part of valor. They saw no reason to issue statements that condemned China if they could do nothing to back them up. If "Finlandization" described a state that constrained its policies because it lived next door to a neighbor too powerful to challenge, then the states of Southeast Asia were "ASEANized." Of course, this ASEAN version of Finlandization was a self-fulfilling strategy: if no concern were articulated, then no one could be asked to help. If no one helped, then nothing could be done.

ASEAN foreign ministers issued a joint statement that expressed concern about recent activities but declined to identify either the problem or the fact that China was the one who had seized territory. Even these limited moves were made only because the Philippines "made a diplomatic scene" and demanded that something be said to China.(36) China apparently did not even have to pay a public relations price. When China humiliated Vietnam in 1974 and 1988, the Vietnamese had shouted from the moral high ground about Chinese aggression. In 1995, however, meetings of ASEAN officials suggested that there was no unanimity on how to handle China and great reluctance to criticize China explicitly for its actions on Mischief Reef.(37) China found that it could more easily defeat ASEAN members than it could Vietnam.

On April 2-4, 1995, at an already planned meeting with Chinese officials behind closed doors in Hangzhou, the Chinese were apparently presented with a unified ASEAN expression of concern over Chinese actions (informally over dinner). Beijing was "asked" to cease building military structures on disputed islands.(38) The ASEAN officials had asked for the issue to be considered formally at the meeting, but China refused and ASEAN backed down. From China's point of view, the fact that the meeting was routine and secret, and that the message was only delivered informally over dinner, meant that China could feel that it had little price to pay for its actions.

However, while China had humiliated ASEAN, in so doing it may have stimulated forces that it had rather left dormant. As Vietnam had shown after the setback of 1988, a Chinese triumph can stimulate the vanquished to work on a better strategy. After defeat by China, Vietnam sought the benefits of interdependence with Western oil companies, turned itself into a target of opportunity for Western multinationals rather than a target for abuse by Western governments, and sought support by joining ASEAN. The new Vietnamese strategy of deterrence appeared to cause China to avoid taking on Vietnam in 1995 and to seek instead a more vulnerable and less costly target.

The states in the cross-hairs were those ASEAN countries that suddenly found that China was prepared to take them on directly. China was apparently unconstrained by economic interdependence. The action on Mischief Reef demonstrated that engaging China was not a sufficient strategy.

For full article, go to http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/chisegal.htm


Anonymous said...

Uhh, can we trust you Vietnamese? You 're no better than the Chinese. You tried to impose your influence in South East Asia. At least China is not near our border.

Anonymous said...

you r just anti-chinese..if not for mao ze dong's continual support for vietnam..vietnam would haf been long gone

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For my part every person should read it.