The South China Sea: Grasping at Straws and Whistling Past the Graveyard 

As their struggle for dominance in the region heats up, China and the U.S. are cranking up pressure on Southeast Asian countries to choose between them.    As they become ever more desperate, officials and pundits are now ‘grasping at straws’ and ‘whistling past the graveyard’ in response to the rapidly deteriorating political situation in the South China Sea.

‘Grasping at straws’ means depending on a futile solution to a problem. ‘Whistling past the graveyard’ means to blithely proceed while ignoring danger. Officials and pundits are now doing both in response to the rapidly deteriorating political situation in the South China Sea.

As their struggle for dominance in the region heats up, China and the U.S. are cranking up pressure on Southeast Asian countries to choose between them.  They are even accusing each other of trying to force a choice.  Meanwhile, ASEAN members are castigating both to stop trying to do so as they desperately search for other options.

Some like former Singapore Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan hope that the region’s multipolarity “will create agency to pursue [their] own interests because it widens the space and opportunity for maneuver.”  However, he acknowledges that countries must have “the wit to recognize their agency, and the courage and agility to use it” to achieve an option other than choosing between the two.

In an attempt to implement a third option, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has appealed to Australia to play a role in promoting peace in the South China Sea.  She pointed out that the Bali Treaty of Amity and Cooperation that binds Australia, ASEAN, China, the U.S. and others rejects the threat and use of force and commits its parties to resolving disputes peacefully.  Although Australia is not directly involved, she was apparently urging it to help ASEAN in enabling peace and stability there. This is an idealistic attempt to apply the Treaty as it was meant to be used.

But Australia and other states that might help realize a third option – Japan, South Korea, the U.K– are all allies of the U.S. and would be seen by China as surrogates for the ‘choice’ of the U.S.  While Russia may play such a role, there is no sign that Southeast Asian countries are eager to draw it in as a balancer nor that Russia is capable or willing to play such a role. India is a possibility but it is not likely to be acceptable to China given their growing rivalry.

Other prominent regional pundits – like Richard Heydarian of the Philippines – support the idea of using the growing multipolarity to maintain peace. He cites recent policy documents like that issued by France last year that states that it will “cement its position as a regional power of the Indo-Pacific – –  while contributing to international stability.”  This sounds and feels very neocolonial and is sure to be opposed by its former colonies.  He even hopes that Britain will send its new aircraft carrier to the South China Sea as a show of force.   But Britain is occupied with its bungled Brexit.  Moreover, by severing itself from Europe, it has lost its “dialogue partnership” status with ASEAN as part of the European Union.

The multipolar option exists only in theory and reality has a way of biting its deniers in the britches.

Both France and Britain have in the past deployed warships to the area.  But they were few and transient and the only political effect on China was to make it wary of their involvement. This wariness was confirmed when Britain, France and Germany the European countries filed a joint note verbale with the U.N. rejecting China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea.  They said specifically that China’s “historic rights” in the waters do not comply with international law or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  They also noted that the 2016 arbitration decision confirms this.

But talk is cheap and China will likely ignore it as it has previous criticism from the West.  In China’s view such rhetoric is siding with the U.S. and its rival claimants and thus negates any pretense of neutrality.  If they were to get more involved kinetically, it would only make matters worse for China’s rivals as China would surely step up its economic and diplomatic pressure on them.  In other words, the small countries would suffer as they almost always do when great powers conflict.

More ridiculous was Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s call for an “alliance of democracies” to protect freedom in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Normally reasonable Philippines public pundit Jay Batongbacal reportedly said: “Taiwan can play a very constructive crucial role in expressing itself as a player in the South China Sea, in supporting multilateralism and the rule of law.” Any sign of ASEAN seeking the assistance of Taiwan vis a vis China would doom any possibility of success of this ‘third way’.

There are other examples of grasping at straws.  Former Philippines Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio hopes that Brunei, Indonesia. Malaysia and Vietnam will back the Philippines if it raises the issue of China’s failure to abide by the arbitration ruling at the UN General Assembly.   But Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and his Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin are opposed to raising the issue there because they do not think they would have a majority of votes. Moreover, these countries are not likely to jump in against China at the UN.  The risks are too great and the rewards for their narrow national interest slim to none.

Other unrealistic comments include US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo‘s “You should have confidence that the Americans will be here in friendship to help you.” But as Ambassador Kausikan says “neither China not the U.S. is trusted in the region.” For the U.S., when the going gets tough, it gets going – – away.  Its staying power is uncertain.  The U.S. has a long history of broken promises and to expect the region to believe it this time is both ‘grasping’ and ‘whistling’.

The US move to sanction Chinese companies involved in construction on rocks and reefs in the South China Sea is another example of ‘grasping at straws’.  The sanctioned companies have few subsidiaries in the U.S., and other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, are not following suit. As constant China critic Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says sanctions are “not going to assuage the concerns in the region by [themselves] because it doesn’t really hurt the companies involved and it targets the wrong companies to begin with.”

Also whistling by the graveyard of lost hopes was Vietnam’s statement on behalf of ASEAN that “We welcome the US’ constructive and responsive contributions to ASEAN’s efforts to maintaining the peace, stability and developments in the South China Sea”. Of course they do– if it would do that. But that is not what it is perceived to be doing by many including some ASEAN members.

Not to be left out of this ‘whistling’, recently, when Indonesia challenged a China Coast Guard vessel in Indonesia’s Exclusive  Economic Zone the vessel said it was ‘patrolling in Chinese jurisdiction’. This is whistling by the graveyard of discarded concepts according to modern international law.

Obviously politicians and pundits alike realize the situation is spiraling out of control and are desperately searching for viable options to maintain peace and stability.  The ASEAN Foreign Ministers have responded by reaffirming their intent to maintain Southeast Asia as “a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability” amid “growing uncertainties resulting from the changing geopolitical dynamics in the regional and global landscape.”

But it is going to take a lot more than words to achieve this.  As their unity weakens it may become every country for itself.  The only stable way out is a sharing of resources and their management in the South China Sea between China and Southeast Asia, and a sharing of power between the U.S. and China.

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Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst focused on Asia and currently Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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