Diplomatic buffoonery in the South China Sea

Author Kevin Foster

“Diplomacy is thinking twice before saying nothing.” Anonymous.

“Diplomacy is thinking twice before saying nothing.” Anonymous.

Nowhere are clear heads needed more right now than in the South China Sea, where a decision by China to build military infrastructure on disputed islands is viewed by neighbours and others beside as a threat to shipping lanes that carry almost all seaborne oil and gas imports not just to China, but to the whole of northeast Asia. So it is a worry that the region’s main multilateral group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), is making such a mess of things.

It all started with a statement (allegedly). A meeting last week between Asean foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart always ran the risk of controversy, given the deep divisions within southeast Asia over how to respond to China’s land reclamation and island building. Vietnam and the Philippines in particular are pushing their own territorial claims in the South China Sea, which by some estimates holds proven and probable reserves of 11bn bl of oil and 190 trillion ft³ (5.4 trillion m³) of natural gas. But Asean, which is renowned for prioritising internal consensus above all else, has had plenty of practice at keeping everyone happy.

Not this time. A statement released by Malaysia’s foreign ministry on behalf of the group suggested the land reclamation work was causing problems “between Asean and China”. That seemingly inoffensive phrase goes against China’s insistence that its territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and others should be dealt with bilaterally. Whatever Asean’s weaknesses, it represents over 600mn people and economies worth almost $3 trillion. Beijing prefers to negotiate from a position of much greater strength — or, as its ex-foreign minister once said, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact.”

A robust exchange of views followed. The statement was quickly withdrawn for unspecified revisions (or more likely because China’s allies within Asean made their displeasure clear). Damage limitation then kicked in. The “so-called joint statement” was not an official Asean document, China’s foreign ministry said, while the state-run Global Times described suggestions to the contrary as the product of a “deluded Western media”. Or perhaps, according to Indonesia, the document contained only “media guidelines” and wasn’t a statement at all. This prompted Malaysia to release another statement  clarifying that the original statement was, in fact, a statement, and one that had the consensus of Asean.

All this, apart from making Asean look ridiculous, has potentially serious consequences, by affirming that China faces no real diplomatic opposition to its South China Sea activities. And it comes at a sensitive time. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague is likely to rule soon on a legal challenge to China’s territorial claims brought by the Philippines, which may prompt Beijing to take further unilateral steps — and possibly withdraw from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea altogether — if the decision goes against China.

Other governments are starting to push back too. The US last week sailed two aircraft carriers through the South China Sea for the first time in years, shortly after lifting its long-standing ban on weapons sales to Vietnam. And Indonesia, which had previously sought to stay neutral, appears to have taken deep offence at Beijing’s recent suggestion that there are overlapping territorial claims around the Natuna islands, home to ExxonMobil's 46 trillion ft³ (1.3 trillion m³) East Natuna gas field. Indonesian president Joko Widodo is holding a cabinet meeting in the Natunas today — on a warship — in Jakarta’s strongest show of displeasure so far.

So while diplomacy founders, the gunboats are quite literally moving in. If armed conflict does break out in the South China Sea, by accident or design, Asean’s diplomatic ineptitude may not seem like quite so much of a laughing matter.