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What Happens Now in the South China Sea?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
July 19, 2012

Filipino fishermen wave from a fishing boat bound to fish near Scarborough Shoal in Masinloc (Erik de Castro/courtesy Reuters)


Although the meltdown of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh last week seemed like an unmitigated disaster, and already has resulted in a flurry of press coverage blasting the organization, the situation in the South China Sea is not necessarily headed for a steep descent into real conflict. To be sure, both sides seem likely to send more “fishing vessels” and other boats that straddle the line between civilian and military vessels into the disputed waters, raising the possibility of further skirmishes. Meanwhile, in the wake of the summit Philippine opinion leaders, and the Philippine media, are both livid at Cambodia for allegedly scuttling any joint position and increasingly aware of how vulnerable the Philippines is, having allowed their armed forces to deteriorate badly over the past two decades.

I am hardly interested in absolving either China or ASEAN, an organization poorly prepared for dealing with 21st century challenges like a rising China, but in the near term, it is not unimaginable that all sides in the dispute will cool down. Indeed, there remains some room for compromise between all Sea claimants and the United States, in order to avoid any real shooting war in the Sea. While it is unlikely that Beijing will give up its claims to the entire Sea anytime soon, Chinese officials recognize that their forceful, increasingly vocal positions on the Sea have alienated many Southeast Asian nations and pushed countries like Vietnam and the Philippines closer to the United States, exactly what China, which has ambitions of denying the U.S. access to and control of Southeast Asian waterways, does not want. Already,China has lost much of the regional good will it fostered in the late 1990s and early 2000s by agreeing, in theory, to work for a code of conduct on the South China Sea, as well as by launching a “charm offensive” of aid, diplomacy, and cultural diplomacy inSoutheast Asia.

At the same time, though some ASEAN nations like Cambodia are drawing nearer to China, while others such as the Philippines are moving closer to the United States, all ASEAN nations value the organization’s coherence, and realize that Southeast Asian states must generally provide a united front on issues if they are to be treated as a major power in East Asia, and if they hope to be the center of any future Asian regional security architecture. The savviest ASEAN officials realize this, which is why everyone from Indonesia’s foreign minister to the ASEAN Secretary-General has, in the wake of the summit, been engaged in back-and-forth diplomacy among ASEAN members to try to get them to agree to some kind of joint position on the Sea, even if that position is weaker than what the Philippines and Vietnam would have wanted.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    why pick the middle of the Pacific.

    can’t be bush-wacked…….satellite coverage !

    is this China’s timid attack……first time at bat !

    worse consequence poddible……….nothing !

    China knows the value of ‘ nothing ‘…….so does Mrs Clinton !~

    China has been too smart……they’ve started with the end-game !

  • Posted by Mahesh

    Good piece. One thing to remember is that out of 10 ASEAN members and 2 prospective ones (Papua & E.Timor), only 2, Vietnam and Philippines, are seriously engaged in claiming a stake in China Sea from China.

    The other two, Malaysia and Brunei, are too little, too distant, with large ethnic Chinese minorities that dominate their domestic economies, finance and trade.

    2/3 of Malaysia’s population is on Western peninsula, and Borneo (Varun in Sanskrit) is sparsely populated. All this naturally leads to relaxed attitudes. Why bother with the Chinese, when there is plenty to eat and procreate?

    In contrast, overpopulated Vietnam and Philippines are in a demographic, economic, and security crisis. Centuries of historic wounds have poisoned the spirits on both sides.

    Organization coherence, united front, requires foundations of psychological unity forged by centuries of common heritage, common experiences, common identity and shared fate.

    There is no Kaplan crash course to build the foundations. So what can be done?

    Start with nodes which are graspable and outcomes which are achievable “relatively” quickly. Common infrastructure projects, common family planning & contraception programs to attain convergence of population momentum (ex – Singapore financing Philippines).

    Then common labor markets which lead to pan ASEAN labor Unions, steps towards monetary then fiscal union, fostering regional identities using mass media before engineering grand unified ones, ex – Pan-Malay identity for Maritime ASEAN, Pan-Buddhist identity for Continental ASEAN.

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    China,beinga great student of Japan naval tactics,would not let a venture into the mid Pacific be to no avail.

    I would suspect that concaled in the 17 ? Chinese fishing bots we may have several mini-submarines,

    There presence would be a sensible neutral training exercise,if discovered.

    There is no question that,in this case, that possssion is what it might appear to be……certainly a counter move would be considered late and ill-conceived.

    What transpires on land ismost secondary. bob

  • Posted by Samuel

    Let look deeper and you would discover the source of problem point to Uncle Sam. Before Uncle Sam ‘Pivot’ back to Asia, it was peace & tranquility on both maritime & continental ASEAN.

  • Posted by mabuhay

    the fact that china does not want to bring this matter to the international court, that tells you allot about the country. china knows its claim to the oil-rich islands is baseless, and yet they pursued their objectives. many historians will call this act “INVASION”.

    my only fear is, if china as powerful as it is now can bully many countries easily, what more if china becomes more powerful?

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