By Frank Ching
After years of assurances that they have nothing to fear from a rising China, newly assertive Beijing is using divide-and-conquer tactics against its neighbors in Southeast Asia, trying to isolate claimants of disputed islands in an area rich in oil and gas.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi acknowledged that “there are territorial and maritime rights disputes” between China and some of its neighbors but, he said, “those disputes should not be viewed as ones between China and ASEAN as a whole just because the countries involved are ASEAN members.”
That statement shows that China wants to divide the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into countries which have territorial disputes with China over tiny islands in the South China Sea ― the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia ― and the six other members ― Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Singapore.
The dispute between China and ASEAN erupted into the open after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Hanoi for the annual meeting of the 27-nation ASEAN Regional Forum, offered American support for “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.”
In the aftermath, it became obvious that many countries, in and out of ASEAN, welcome such a U.S. role so as to balance China.
Those who spoke on the issue involved not just the claimant countries but also Indonesia, Japan and Australia.
The assertion that Beijing’s dispute is only with some member countries rather than with ASEAN as a whole is difficult to reconcile with the record.
As early as 1992, the year after ASEAN made China a dialogue partner, ASEAN issued a declaration of principles on the South China Sea in which the organization ― not member countries ― urged “all parties concerned” to exercise restraint to create “a positive climate for the eventual resolution of all disputes.”
Ten years later, in 2002, China signed a document called the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with ASEAN as a whole and not only with countries with which it had unresolved territorial disputes.
Since then, ASEAN and China have been working on a “Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” but agreement has been elusive. To claim now, after 19 years of dialogue, that ASEAN as a whole is not involved is to be disingenuous, if not worse.
Moreover, China knows that the members of ASEAN have agreed that before countries with territorial disputes meet with China on the South China Sea disputes, all 10 member countries will meet first to hammer out a common position.
ASEAN members should know that individually they have little strength but, if they stay united, they can be a formidable political force.
The agreement signed between China and ASEAN in 2002 has received international recognition.
Last year, after the annual meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which was attended by foreign ministers from 27 countries, a statement was issued in which the ministers “reaffirmed the continuing importance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea of 2002 as a milestone document between the member states of ASEAN and China.”
Despite this historical record, the Chinese foreign minister insisted in his rebuttal to Hillary Clinton that “the non-claimant ASEAN countries tell the Chinese side that they are not part of the disputes, they don't take sides and they hope these disputes will be settled through bilateral consultations between the countries concerned.”
This sounds very much like China is trying to turn some ASEAN members against their own regional organization, dividing ASEAN into two blocs.
According to a Chinese foreign ministry account, after Foreign Minister Yang’s remarks, “about a dozen Asian delegates expressed their congratulations to the Chinese side.”
“They said they felt proud,” according to the Chinese account, “as Minister Yang's remarks were a morale boost to fellow Asians.”
It certainly sounds like Beijing is trying to win over some ASEAN countries on the basis of being “fellow Asians” who do not want to quarrel with China.
If the Chinese account is credible, Beijing has already had substantial success. It is not possible mathematically to get “about a dozen Asian delegates” within the ASEAN Regional Forum without some of them being from ASEAN countries.
Just which ASEAN countries chose to side with China was not disclosed. However, those countries should be very careful. They should understand that ASEAN’s strength comes from its unity. Once ASEAN’s solidarity is gone, the individual countries will also lose China’s respect.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator in Hong Kong. He can be reached at Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org.