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June 1, 2011

Countering Beijing in the South China Sea

Why the U.S. must not let China’s territorial ambitions go unopposed


The most dangerous source of instability in Asia is a rising China seeking to reassert itself, and the place China is most likely to risk a military conflict is the South China Sea. In the second decade of the 21st century, the seldom-calm waters of the South China Sea are frothing from a combination of competing naval exercises and superheated rhetoric. Many pundits, politicians, and admirals see the South China Sea as a place of future competition between powers.

Speculation about impending frictions started at the July 2010 asean Regional Forum (arf) when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an overdue statement on American interests in the South China Sea. Clinton averred that the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; that the U.S. supported a collaborative process in resolving the territorial disputes there; and that the U.S. supports the 2002 asean-China declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea.

Despite Clinton’s statement of support for China’s own agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China’s Foreign Ministry responded negatively, claiming that the secretary’s statement was “virtually an attack on China.” China’s military stated that it was opposed to “internationalization” of the six-country dispute and commenced a new and unusually large naval exercise in South China Sea the very next week.

This gathering maritime confrontation is instigated by China’s assertions of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and its stated intention to enforce that sovereignty. But the source of China’s hubris is its view of its historic mandate to rule all under heaven. Extending China’s borders a thousand miles across the South China Sea is only one policy manifestation of this vision of a new Chinese world order. Consistent with its Sinocentric ideology, Beijing believes its authority over its smaller neighbors should include determining their foreign policy.  After Clinton challenged China’s claim to the entire South China Sea, China’s foreign minister reportedly glared at a Singaporean diplomat and pronounced, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”1  More telling of China’s opinion of its position among nations, the following Monday China’s Foreign Ministry posted a statement that “China’s view represented the interests of ‘fellow Asians.’”

Consistent with its Sinocentric ideology, Beijing believes its authority over its smaller neighbors should include determining their foreign policy.

The competing territorial claims in the South China Sea are decades old, but today the Chinese government is full of a sense of accomplishment and the People’s Liberation Army is flush with the fastest growing military budget in the world. Clinton’s statement may have been inspired by earlier statements by Clinton’s Chinese counterpart, the state councilor responsible for foreign affairs, Dai Bingguo, directly to Clinton herself and repeated to several U.S. aides that the enforcement of China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea was a “core interest” on par with Taiwan and Tibet. While Dai Bingguo reportedly has desisted from using the term “core interest” to describe China’s maritime sovereignty, personalities in China’s military still do. In January 2011 the web site of the People’s Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist party, surveyed readers about whether the South China Sea is China’s “core interest”; 97 percent of nearly 4,300 respondents said yes.2

Short of a shooting war, protecting freedom of navigation in one of the globe’s busiest sea lanes requires an amicable resolution of the competing territorial claims. Starting a process to resolve or neutralize the problem will require American leadership and resolve. Firm diplomacy backed by convincing naval power and patient leadership can strike a balance in the region that protects freedom of navigation, the integrity of international law, and the independence and sovereignty of Southeast Asia’s nations.

The worst solution to the South China Sea dispute from the U.S. point of view would be for China’s asean neighbors simply to acquiesce to Beijing’s position and for the entire South China Sea to become the sovereign territory of the People’s Republic of China (prc). The Beijing position is also the worst solution for the asean and every other trading nation on the planet. But an almost as bad solution is for the U.S. to become involved in a bilateral confrontation with China without the firm endorsement and commitment to American actions by the other littoral claimants and by America’s Asia-Pacific allies. Without the support of regional alliances, the U.S. would be entangled in a campaign at the far end of its logistical tail but deep inside the reach of a large and rising power.

The ideal solution would be for the asean countries to stand up to China and insist on a multilateral resolution to the disputes based on the provisions of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea and the code of conduct specified by the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which China signed in 2002. This solution is not possible unless asean develops the political, economic and military resources to challenge China’s influence. In the short term, backing from the United States and other regional powers including Japan, India, and Australia could be an incubator while asean develops an indigenous deterrent capability. In the long term, it must stand up for itself.

asean will be reluctant to accept American assistance if it is presented as a part of a great power, anti-China geopolitical policy. China is not only a neighbor to Southeast Asia, but also its most important trading partner, investor, and occasional political ally. Asserting a Chinese menace and asking the asean countries to participate in an anti-Chinese coalition is a recipe for policy failure. Instead, the United States must articulate a vision for the nations of Asia that contrasts with the re-imposition of ancient Chinese hegemony. That vision should include the traditional Western principles of open commerce, political independence, and territorial sovereignty.

The South China Sea problem

Six countries claim the islands of the South China Sea: the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. The prc and Taiwan (as rival governments of “China”) claim the South China Sea by virtue of cultural artifacts, ambiguous literary allusions, and outright occupation. Vietnam also claims all of the islands in the South China Sea based largely on historical documents, Japan’s postwar abandonment of title to the South Sea islets, and the legacy of French colonial deeds to several key South China Sea islets. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei claim all or parts of the Sea’s southern swath of Spratly Islands based largely on their respective Exclusive Economic Zones ( eezs) and continental shelf. According to unclos, an eez extends 200 nautical miles from the low-water line on a country’s coast. China’s published map of the South China Sea shows a dotted line extending all the way to the eez of Indonesia’s Natuna Island, potentially enlarging the number of conflicting claimants to seven.

This problem is not an arcane legal issue, but a near and dangerous threat to the global economy and to the regional ecology. The sea lines of communications through the South China Sea connect Europe and Asia, making the sea one of the busiest waterways in the world. Almost half of world shipping passes across it, and from the Middle East a significant portion of northeast Asia’s oil. The South China Sea is also rich in hydrocarbons in various forms, and the full exploitation of these resources is hampered by unresolved boundaries and blatant military intimidation. Lastly, because of overfishing, there is a marked decline in the overall fish catch, inspiring fisherman to use more aggressive techniques. With no multilateral agreement to regulate fishing in the South China Sea the fishing industry and sea ecology are rapidly approaching disaster.

Disputes over the South China Sea are not arcane legal issues but dangerous threats to the global economy and to the regional ecology.

China’s claim. All the claimant countries justify their respective territorial claims using highly interpretive definitions of unclos articles. Only China, however, exhibits the combination of broad territorial claims; economic, political, and military strength; an uncompromising diplomatic stance; and demonstrated aggressiveness in pursuing its objectives. This unique combination of traits makes Beijing at once the most important player in resolving the territorial disputes and the biggest obstacle to doing so.

When discussion turns to diplomacy and a negotiated resolution to the dispute, Beijing persists in reminding all other claimant countries that the South China Sea is Chinese sovereign territory and refuses to negotiate unless the parties accept China’s indisputable sovereignty. To date, China’s tactic is to engage in talks only bilaterally and avoid objective adjudication through <<span class="smallcaps">unclos procedures or any outside parties. Additionally, China has made declarations and provided highly interpretive definitions that exceedingly complicate the resolution process and put China on a collision course with the rest of the seagoing world.

Continental shelves and the impracticality of drawing coastal boundaries for countries with complex and deeply indented coastlines, like Norway, or for archipelagic states, such as the Philippines or Indonesia, were recognized in such unclos provisions as Article 7 (“Straight baselines”), Article 47 (“Archipelagic baselines”), and Articles 76 and 77 (“Continental Shelf”). These articles permit countries to draw straight boundary lines across complex or closely spaced coastal features and islands as long as they do not interfere with customary freedom of navigation. Beijing, however, extends the definitions of these articles by applying them to its claimed islands and coastal features.3

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress adopted the “Law on the Territorial Waters and Their Contiguous Areas” (Territorial Sea Law) on February 25, 1992. This law does not specify China’s exact territorial claim, but it does assert sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Moreover, China has published a map showing the entire South China Sea from Hainan Island up to Indonesia’s Natuna Island in an enclosed loop as territorial waters. In 1993, China’s foreign minister verbally reassured his Indonesian counterpart that the densely populated and economically important Natuna Island was not claimed by China, but Beijing has since failed to formally confirm that informal statement.

According to unclos and international custom, “territorial waters” extend twelve nautical miles from the low-water line along a country’s coast. When Beijing signed unclos, however, it included declarations that postulated definitions of territorial waters and rights of coastal states different from those written in unclos. Among other things, China declared that:

1. In accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy sovereign rights and jurisdiction over an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and the continental shelf.

2. The People’s Republic of China will effect, through consultations, the delimitation of boundary of maritime jurisdiction with the states with coasts opposite or adjacent to China, respectively, on the basis of international law and in accordance with the equitable principle.

3. The People’s Republic of China reaffirms the sovereignty over all its archipelagoes and islands as listed in Article 2 of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, which was promulgated on February 25, 1992.

4. The People’s Republic of China reaffirms that the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea concerning innocent passage through the territorial sea shall not prejudice the right of a coastal state to request, in accordance with its laws and regulations, a foreign state to obtain advance approval from or give prior notification to the coastal state for the passage of its warships through the territorial sea of the coastal state.

These declarations substantially change the meaning of unclos articles and are in marked contrast to traditional sea laws. China claims its eez is not just an economic boundary but sovereign territory, thus extending its maritime border 200 nautical miles. Beijing is also claiming that the uninhabited islands and reefs of the South China Sea are Chinese territory and, thus, also have eez extending an additional 200 nautical miles from each of them, and that its continental shelf extends as far as Beijing chooses to draw it. Finally, the declarations greatly broaden China’s prerogatives as a coastal state by insisting that warships making innocent passage must first obtain Chinese permission, again a violation of both unclos and the traditional laws of the sea.

Beijing is also claiming that the uninhabited islands and reefs of the South China Sea are Chinese territory and, thus, also have EEZ.

The position of the Chinese government has direct implications for regional economies, the freedom of navigation of global air and surface fleets, and America’s naval and air forces. If China were entitled to enforce its sovereignty over the South China Sea, then merchant ships traversing that Sea, no matter their flag, would be subject to China’s law and regulations and any fees, duties or other restrictions China may choose to impose. Additionally, China would have exclusive fishing and mineral rights over a Sea that the other littoral countries depend on for a significant portion of their natural resource income. Lastly, China’s insistence that any warship traversing the South China Sea must first gain permission nullifies the rights of foreign warships to conduct innocent passage. Furthermore, warships that do traverse territorial waters have severe restrictions applied to their operations.

These restrictions, if applied to the entire South China Sea, would severely restrict the operations of the United Sates Navy and hinder its ability to protect both American and international shipping. Furthermore, in light of China’s position, the dispute between China and the United States over the activities of the ep-3 reconnaissance airplane near Hainan Island in April 2001; the multiple harassing actions against the American ships USNS Impeccable and Victorious in the Spring of 2009; the collision between a Chinese submarine and the USNS John McCain’s sonar array in June 2009, and the recent show of force through naval exercises in the Yellow Sea are not isolated incidents, but rather the latest chapters of China’s campaign to assert its sovereignty over the South China Sea and could well be the first rounds in an escalating shoving match between China and the United States.

How strong is China’s claim? In the 9th century, an Arab trading dhow sank off Belitung Island, in what are now Indonesian waters, at the southern reaches of the South China Sea. The ship was laden with 60,000 artifacts of gold, silver, and exquisite porcelain apparently from China’s southern port metropolis of Guangzhou and bound for markets in Southeast Asia. The dhow was discovered in 1998 by Indonesian fishermen and is now considered one of the most important finds in maritime archeology.

The Belitung wreck was not a Chinese merchant vessel (Tang Dynasty China did not have a functioning seafaring culture), but it is emblematic of China’s new Sinocentric ideology of preeminence in East Asia. The Chinese government’s claim to the South China Sea is based in part on ancient relics, coins, pottery shards, and the like that litter South China Sea islets. The fact that these artifacts most likely were not left by Chinese sailors does not appear to influence Beijing’s outlandish claims.

China also justifies its claims to the South China Sea with various vague writings dating back more than 2,000 years.

Neither can Beijing demonstrate that Chinese ever permanently inhabited the Spratly or Paracel Islands, because they are uninhabitable. Many are wholly or intermittently submerged. The ones that are mostly dry lack sources of fresh water, and these low features are seasonally exposed to the monsoons. Today, the only human populations of these islands and reefs are military garrisons maintained at immense expense to their respective governments and at great personal risk to their members. They can by no means be said to have “an economic life of their own” and consequently are not able to generate their own eez under Article 121 of unclos.

China also cites various vague, questionable, and off-point historical writings dating back more than 2,000 years in its attempt to document its claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea.4 Without doubt, Chinese explorers and fisherman sailed the South China Sea for two thousand years, and some recorded their exploits, but it is equally clear that the Chinese traditionally have viewed Hainan Island as the southernmost outpost of their civilization, certainly until the end of the 19th century.5

Ancient Chinese records do not disprove the claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, or Indonesia. There is substantial archeology showing that today’s Southeast Asians lived on those archipelagos long before written Chinese history. Several waves of settlers arrived in the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos as far back as 250,000 years. These early peoples sailed or paddled the South China Sea to arrive where their descendents are living today. Although the Spratly and Paracel Islands were too small for permanent habitation, peoples of all the littoral countries fished and economically exploited them before China existed.

For countries that are littoral to the South China Sea, China’s claims are analogous to one of your neighbors claiming that the entire street in front of your home is his personal property. Furthermore, he claims that your sidewalk, driveway, and front yard clear up to the doorstep also belong to him. His armed guards park their cars in your driveway and he picks flowers out of your garden. If you or your neighbors protest he denies the validity of your title and refuses to settle in court. If someone insists on his property rights then the guards beat him.

Competing visions

The international community, led by the United States, is already pursuing a vision of Southeast Asia’s future and the resolution of the South China Sea disputes that competes with China’s world view. The world’s vision of nation states is of the Westphalian model of independent countries with sovereign territories. The United Nations Charter and the un Convention on the Law of the Sea are manifestations of that model. China’s vision, on the other hand, is a Chinese world order, a new face to China’s ancient tributary system where China is the central power and Beijing is the global political pole.

The countries of Southeast Asia have already adopted the Westphalian model as their own and formed asean as an explicit defense of member countries’ sovereignty and independence. Nevertheless, the tributary system is a familiar part of Southeast Asia’s history and at the cost of independence it was tolerable, especially as an alternative to confrontation with Chinese military power.

The Chinese world order. The mechanics of the tributary system are often described as relatively benign. Countries paid a tribute, the kings or their ambassadors performed a kowtow ceremony to the Chinese emperor acknowledging his sovereignty, and in exchange they were given expensive gifts and granted lucrative trade concessions. According to the historians that espouse this view of the tributary system the Chinese emperors rarely intervened in the internal affairs of a country and were not territorially acquisitive.

The reality is that the Chinese emperors viewed their vassal kingdoms in the same terms as the European monarchs viewed their colonies: The emperor did not hesitate to use military force in order to protect his property. For example, in the 15th century, a tribute-paying king on the Indonesian island of Java killed some Chinese imperial envoys who had been sent to recognize the investiture of the self-proclaimed “king” of the Chinese colony at Palembang, a colony that had been subordinate to Java. In response the emperor sent a large naval fleet to deliver a note that said, “You should immediately send 60,000 ounces of gold to redeem your crime, so that you may preserve your land and people. Otherwise we cannot stop our armies from going to punish you.”6

When the Chinese Communist party usurped the emperor’s throne in 1947 it sought to regain control over all the empire’s former realms. The venerable China scholar John K. Fairbanks described China’s world view in concentric circles with a an inner “Sinic Zone” of nearby countries that were culturally similar, the “Inner Asia Zone” of tributary states on the fringe of Chinese territory, and the “Outer Zone” of barbarians. The Kingdom of Kashgar was once a tributary state in the Outer Zone, as opposed to Korea, which was in the inner Sinic Zone. Today the former Kingdom of Kashgar is part of the Chinese province renamed Xinjiang. Although the same colony twice declared independence as the East Turkistan Republic (in 1933 and 1944) the People’s Liberation Army “peacefully liberated” the independent state from itself in 1949.

The Chinese emperors viewed their vassal kingdoms the same as the European monarchs viewed their colonies.

The People’s Republic of China lacked the strength to extend its influence to all the empire’s former vassals. Korea escaped Kashgar’s fate because of the rise of the Japanese Empire. Korea became a battleground between the Chinese and Japanese Empires, and was won by the Japanese Emperor in 1895. Despite the painful memories of Japanese occupation, the silver lining for today’s Koreans is that Japanese colonization and the aftermath of World War II prevented China from annexing Korea as it did East Turkistan and Tibet.

The proposition that Korea could share the fate of other former Chinese vassal states is not mere speculation but the considered opinion of the Chinese Academy of Social Science. In 2002, the Chinese government launched a research effort called the Northeast Project. In 2004 project researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Science declared that the ancient Korean Kingdom of Koguryo was not an independent kingdom, but a Chinese province. The same year, China’s Foreign Ministry removed all references to Koguryo as a period of Korean history from its website. The Chinese government hosted similar research efforts called the Northwest Project and Southwest Project for Xinjiang and Tibet respectively. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the Chinese Academy of Science launches fresh research projects on China’s former vassals in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia also owes its contemporary independence to foreign occupation. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, European powers extended their empires to many of China’s tributary states across southern Asia and Southeast Asia, including Vietnam and several kingdoms that ruled in regions of the modern-day Philippines and Indonesia. The Japanese and Europeans plucked these states from the weak Chinese emperor in what modern China derides as the “unequal treaties,” and they turned China’s colonies into European colonies. After the Japanese empire was destroyed in World War II and the European empires retreated from Asia, the most important legacy of their occupation was the residual concept of independent and sovereign states. China was too weak to reassert control over its former tributary states against European and American opposition, and new countries were built on the boundary templates of the former colonies freed, at least temporarily, from Chinese influence.

China disregards treaties and bases its current territorial claims on the pre-colonial tributary relationships.

In pursuit of Beijing’s ambitions, China disregards the “unequal treaties” negotiated with Japan and the European powers and bases its current territorial claims on the pre-colonial tributary relationships. For example, between 1992 and 2000 China and Vietnam negotiated their Gulf of Tonkin maritime boundaries. The basis for Vietnam’s claim in the Gulf was an 1887 treaty between France and China that established Vietnam’s modern borders. China, however, would not recognize the validity of the treaty or Vietnam’s historic claims.7  A treaty was eventually agreed to, but it was evidently so inequitable to Vietnam that Hanoi kept the terms secret for years. Eventually some of the terms leaked out, inflaming nationalist passions and threatening the stability of the Vietnamese government.

Since every country in Southeast Asia derives its present-day borders from colonial era treaties and agreements (including even Thailand, which was never a European colony, but did sign border treaties with European empires), Vietnam’s experience should serve as warning to any of the asean countries trying to bilaterally negotiate with China. Nevertheless, shortly after Vietnam concluded its border treaties President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines struck an agreement with China, in 2004, for oil exploration. Like Vietnam she also tried unsuccessfully to keep the terms secret. The formerly secret Annex “a” showed that the delineated boundaries included huge areas of the Philippines’ eez. Of the total of almost 150,000 square kilometers covered in the agreement, around 24,000 square kilometers included maritime territory previously claimed only by the Philippines. When the terms of the secret treaty were finally exposed, nationalist passions were once again inflamed. Amado Macasaet, publisher of the popular and respectable Philippine magazine Malaya, went so far as to say that President Arroyo should be charged with treason for signing the agreements he claimed were made in exchange for loans “attended by bribery and corruption.” Afterward even the overthrown former President Marcos was more popular than Arroyo.

For China’s former colonies, there is little reason to believe that appeasing China in the South China Sea will satisfy its appetite for territory or hegemony. In the Chinese world order China is not one country in a community but the oldest civilized country among upstarts. Any country’s sovereignty is ultimately owed to China and the degree of independence depends on its appreciation of Beijing’s “core interests.” In asserting its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, Beijing is laying down its markers as if to say, “We can solve this problem the easy way, or the hard way, but it will be China’s way.”

Perceptions in Southeast Asia

Aggressive american diplomacy that seeks to pull together a “balancing alliance” against China can only confirm China’s suspicions of an American strategy to contain China while, at the same time, American actions are alienating Southeast Asian governments. asean capitals are more concerned about China than Washington, but they are also far more vulnerable to Beijing’s economic and military pressures and thus reluctant to provoke Chinese retribution. Ideally, asean would have the United States Navy steam in force into the South China Sea to maintain the peace, while asean then clucks disapprovingly from the sidelines and reassures the Chinese that it had nothing to do with it. Intellectually, of course, asean knows that it has to do better than that. Understanding the views of the asean countries is the first step in developing a balanced and appropriate policy.

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand formed asean in 1967 with the stated goal of fostering peace and stability, but the most important goal was to gain every member’s acceptance of the Westphalian-like principle of “mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations.” During the Cold War, asean continued to evolve as a diplomatic tool to fence out superpower competition in the region. After the Cold War, asean recruited Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and focused on economic development. In the 21st century, security issues are again taking precedence on the asean agenda. First it was international terrorism and maritime piracy that inspired inter-asean security cooperation, and now the rise of China increasingly tops the agenda of security discussion.

Citing the recent steep rise in military spending in Southeast Asia, some analysts speculate that these countries are already preparing for military competition with China. For example, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has reported that arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia rose by 84 percent, 146 percent, and 722 percent, respectively, in the last five years. In the same timeframe Thailand’s defense budget has doubled. Some analysts argue that this huge increase in defense spending is an indicator of Southeast Asia’s concern over the Chinese threat. Unfortunately, like many government-led activities in Southeast Asia, there is much less substance than the raw data suggest.

In Malaysia, for example, the often-cited billion-dollar purchase of French submarines and many other expensive weapon systems perhaps has more to do with extravagant corruption than with strategic defense planning.8  In fact, the history of arms purchases in Malaysia appears burdened with corruption — a way of bejeweling its armed forces with expensive, low-density weapons that complicate logistics without adding combat value.

In the Philippines, vulnerable to the Chinese juggernaut, national security is sacrificed to domestic politics.

In Thailand, the current military buildup began only after the Royal Thai Army’s 2006 coup installed an Army-dependent government. Furthermore, although the generals espouse a pro-American defense policy to visiting U.S. officials, their equipment purchases are from an unusual mix of non-U.S. companies. From a logistics point of view a menagerie of military equipment is difficult and expensive to maintain; on the other hand, using smaller, non-U.S. arms suppliers may give Thai officers easier access to kickbacks.

In the Philippines, the Southeast Asian country that is second only to Vietnam in its vulnerability to the Chinese juggernaut, national security is sacrificed to domestic politics. Since September 11< the United States has engaged in a sustained effort to improve the capabilities of the Philippine Armed Forces. Total U.S. assistance tripled from roughly $38 million in 2001 to almost $120 million in 2010. Additionally, not counted in those assistance dollars are the millions spent on an ongoing series of robust U.S.-Philippine military exercises designed to improve the capabilities of the Philippine Armed Forces. Unfortunately, despite the sincere efforts of the U.S. Pacific Command, there have been only marginal improvements in the paf.

This lack of improvement relates to the declining Philippine defense budget. As U.S. assistance grew, the Philippine Congress cut the defense budget. Besides the China threat the Philippines is also beleaguered by multiple internal insurgencies, yet most of the paf’s equipment is Vietnam War vintage and the defense budget is now only about one percent of gdp, or about $1.16 billion in 2009. Despite, or perhaps because of America’s unstinting assistance, many Philippine politicians, including the newly elected President Benigno Aquino III, feel that they are entitled to more. Ignoring their own complicity in underfunding Philippine security forces, these politicians are calling for a review of the Visiting Forces Agreement (the agreement that permits the American military presence to help train the paf). Their objection is that the U.S. is not doing enough to modernize the Philippine Armed Forces, and they imagine the Visiting Forces Agreement as a tool to leverage ever greater American military subsidies.

Fortunately, the security picture in Southeast Asia is not all venality and indolence. Both Vietnam and Indonesia are making significant arms purchases focused on strengthening their national security. Additionally, after decades of wise investment, Singapore’s armed forces are world-class and by far the most powerful in asean.

ASEAN’s total air and naval forces are imposing, but they are not enough to defeat the powerful Chinese Army.

On paper, asean’s total air and naval forces are imposing. asean boasts a fleet of 680 fixed-wing combat aircraft, 412 surface combat vessels, and eight submarines in the combined navies.9 These numbers are not enough to defeat the powerful People’s Liberation Army, with its 2,300 combat aircraft, 65 submarines, and 256 surface combat vessels, but they are sufficient to act as a deterrent were there any sense of common defense. Unfortunately, asean is not nato: No country in Southeast Asia is treaty-bound to assist another in case of an attack, and there are few solely indigenous efforts to coordinate military activities.

Indonesia is the largest country in Southeast Asia, making up 40 percent of the region’s population; it has the largest economy and is a developing democracy. Indonesia’s views on China’s activities reflect Jakarta’s vision of itself as an informal leader of asean. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said, “For members of asean, what is more worrying is the possibility that the South China Sea could be a central theater for possible rivalry.” Indonesia’s goal, and by extension asean’s as well, is to balance the United States against the Chinese in order to protect their territorial integrity and independence.

The government of Vietnam perceives China as nothing less than an existential threat; an anxiety validated by historical experience. Vietnam’s recorded history dates back 2,700 years. China occupied the country for more than a thousand of those years and Hanoi was subject to a burdensome tributary status for most of the rest of its history. Despite many long and difficult wars with China, Hanoi enjoyed genuine independence for only brief periods.

Hanoi’s experience with post-empire China is the latter’s enduring disregard of Vietnam’s sovereignty and independence. In 1979, in order to chastise Hanoi for policies Beijing did not like, China attacked Vietnam and briefly occupied parts of the country. Additionally, China’s pla Navy has on multiple occasions attacked and sunk Vietnamese naval vessels operating just off southern Vietnam and hundreds of miles from China’s coast; Chinese soldiers garrison tiny islands and atolls inside Vietnam’s eez; pla Navy vessels frequently harass or arrest Vietnamese fishermen; and Beijing interferes with Hanoi’s efforts to exploit natural gas resources well inside Vietnam’s eez. Nevertheless, Hanoi is careful not to provoke China and continues to seek good relations with Beijing.

Hanoi’s experience with post-empire China is the latter’s enduring disregard of Vietnam’s independence.

Although Singapore is not party to the South China Sea maritime territorial dispute, and 75 percent of its population is of Chinese descent, Singapore’s views on rising China prove the rule that asean is suspicious of China’s intentions. Singapore is an ethnically diverse country, but the bulk of its population is descended from Chinese immigrants, mostly laborers brought in during British rule. Because of its immigrant population and economic success some countries in the region resent Singapore and often voice suspicions of its loyalties. Although Singapore has for decades built strong economic links with China, it waited until 1990 to open formal relations with the People’s Republic — the last country in asean to do so. Singapore continues that strong economic link, but China’s recent belligerence has forced Singapore to declare its side.

In order to assure its neighbors (and notify China) that Singapore is not a Chinese province, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at the August 2010 National Day celebration, made a point of describing Singapore’s unique cultural identity, including the adoption of English as the national language and the distinctive Singaporean cuisine. To emphasize that message, in a September 6, 2010, editorial the Straits Times, Singapore’s national newspaper and government mouthpiece, emphasized that the people of Singapore were not overseas Chinese, saying, “the term ‘Overseas Chinese’ should rankle Singaporeans of all races because it implies that the Chinese in Singapore are somehow ‘overseas,’ separated from the ‘mainland.’ It also implies a desire to perhaps ‘return’ some day. In fact, most Singaporeans here are not ‘overseas.’ They are rooted here.” In another editorial last summer the Straits Times guardedly approved Washington’s new approach to the South China Sea and warned Beijing that its “actions will be closely watched for what it says about the growing power’s ‘peaceful rise.’”

Singapore’s biggest concern about the new U.S. policy is not fear of provoking China but the fickleness of American foreign policy, a point of view that reflects the broader asean position. From asean’s point of view, despite decades of strident Chinese declarations and demonstrative military actions, the U.S. has been “standoffish” about the dispute; seemingly unaware or unconcerned of Beijing’s acquisitiveness in the South China Sea and the implications for the region and the globe. For example, when the Philippines, an American treaty ally, discovered a Chinese naval installation on Mischief Reef, Washington did not share Manila’s outrage and took no position on the dispute, even as the Chinese continued to expand and enlarge their presence.

But asean countries are ambivalent about both America and China. They ask for consistent American support and presence to balance China. At the same time, many asean countries are reluctant to grant the U.S. too much access for fear of compromising their sovereignty. asean countries fear China’s military power and political intentions, but they welcome Chinese investment and trading opportunities in the vast Chinese market.

Finally, asean countries are far from unified in their view of China as a threat. Four of asean’s ten countries, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, are not party to the South China Sea territorial dispute. Burma’s junta, an international pariah regime, ranks the People’s Republic of China among the few governments friendly to it and would be reluctant to defend its asean partners against its patron’s encroachment. Thailand is in the midst of deep political schism and unlikely to participate in a common defense. Furthermore, Thailand’s elite are proud of Thailand’s flexible “bamboo” foreign policy and see no reason not to bend with the wind from China. The royal families in both Thailand and Cambodia are on friendly terms with the Chinese government. Lastly, asean’s consensus decision process means that Beijing needs only one dissenting vote to avoid asean censure.

Moving forward

The countries of Southeast Asia use asean to create a diplomatic fence around the region. As recent events have shown, however, a rising China is pushing against that boundary and asean is now wishing for increased United States presence to balance the Chinese encroachment. The harsh reality is that even ironclad security treaties and the presence of American warships are not enough to protect Southeast Asian countries if they are not willing to defend themselves. The asean countries must act individually and collectively to create a substantive deterrent to Chinese encroachment. To quote the poet Robert Frost, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and asean lacks the institutional strength, cohesion, and unity of purpose to build  a good fence.

China poses a substantial and present military threat, but starting U.S. assistance with a buildup of asean militaries is analogous to building a house by starting with the roof. The first priority must be for the individual countries to build a foundation for that house by cleaning up their legal systems and reducing corruption. With the exception of Singapore, every country in asean is afflicted with deeply corrupt legal systems. Judicial corruption is extremely unpopular, known in Indonesia as the “judicial mafia,” and U.S. assistance in fighting it would be welcome. The U.S. has a number of programs, particularly in the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, that can assist indigenous judicial-reform efforts and should be the first priority for assistance to the region.

Substantial improvement in ASEAN’s legal systems and growth in its economies must come before increased military strength.

The second priority for building asean’s house is the economic walls and posts that will hold up the roof. asean has made progress in loosening inter-asean trade restrictions, but it must continue to expand those efforts, and the countries must reform their internal economies to permit economic growth. Again, the U.S. has many departments and agencies that can and should aid economic development in Southeast Asia. In particular, the U.S. Trade Representative could negotiate an enhanced trade agreement between the U.S. andasean, perhaps modeled on the U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement that did so much to assist Vietnam’s economic reforms.

In Southeast Asia the U.S. can for a time provide a security shield for the asean countries, but that commitment must not become a bottomless obligation. Security subsidies, like welfare, trade, or industrial subsidies, can become expensive entitlements and eventually prompt behavior that runs counter to the original intent of the subsidy.

If there is substantial improvement in the legal systems and growth in the economies, then increased military strength will follow naturally. Relieved of the burden of purchasing weapons systems whose only practical use is enriching politicians or generals will significantly increase military capability without costing an additional penny. Furthermore, with larger and more robust national economies, the regional militaries will gain more resources for modernization without increasing their burden on taxpayers. The Pentagon already has robust military assistance programs in the region, and improved national militaries will be more able to take advantage of American assistance.

Diplomatically, asean should begin inter-asean negotiations on internal borders. Beginning the process may force China to ask to participate in the multilateral process, allowing asean to set the terms of the negotiations. Even if Beijing will not participate, an asean border agreement would complicate China’s diplomacy and spoil its bilateral intimidation.

Militarily, asean should begin the process of improving its ability to conduct collective military defense. Building on the small steps already begun — fighting transnational terrorism, suppressing maritime piracy, and providing disaster relief — the asean militaries should begin to look for opportunities to improve their ability to perform coalition operations. asean’s stated diplomatic and political goals are to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the member nations. Building a collective military deterrent to defend those goals against all possible adversaries is not an anti-China activity.

Lastly, it is not the purpose of this article to argue that Beijing will necessarily enforce its ancient prerogatives, but rather that the Sinocentric ideology is the historical base from which Chinese leaders will view the world. Beijing must be convinced to become a devoted adherent to the Westphalian model. Former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick often opined that China needed to be more of a “stakeholder” in the international system and that that goal needs to remain a long-term U.S. policy objective. During the latter half of the 20th century, China greatly benefited from the inherent protections of the Westphalian model of a nation-state and the broader international system. Now that China is big enough to influence the world order, it must not be permitted to establish a tiered structure with China demanding greater rights than other countries.

Washington policymakers must remember that China is not currently a threat to any country. Although there is considerable potential for a U.S.-China clash, good diplomacy in Washington and growing political maturity in Beijing may obviate any such confrontation. The best way to achieve this goal is to embed China in rules-based organizations and then insist that Beijing abide by those rules. The most important global maritime treaty is unclos, but the United States has not yet ratified the treaty and thus has less power to influence the treaty implementation than does China. The only way for the U.S. to get a seat at the unclos table is to ratify unclos and participate in the various commissions guiding its implementation.

American interests in maintaining the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and other contested waters should be defended with diplomacy backed by military strength. The U.S. must not flinch or compromise, because any temporary concession to China’s demonstrably unreasonable demands will not earn gratitude, but instead will become a precedent for China’s future demands. Diplomatically and militarily, Washington must continue to deploy sufficient force to deter China’s unjustifiable territorial ambitions.


Dana R. Dillon is the author of The China Challenge (2007) and a frequent commentator on Asian and national security issues.

1 John Pomfret, “U.S. takes a tougher tone with China,”Washington Post (July 30, 2010).

2 Edward Wong, “China Hedges Over Whether South China Sea is a ‘Core Interest’ Worth War,” New York Times (March 30, 2011).

3 Max Herriman, “China’s Territorial Sea Law and International Law of the Sea,” Maritime Studies 15 (1997). See also the discussion of China’s claim by Xavier Furtado in “International Law and the Dispute over the Spratly Islands: Whither unclos?” Contemporary Southeast Asia 21:3 (December 1, 1999).

4 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Jurisprudential Evidence to Support China’s Sovereignty over the Nansha Islands” (2000).

5 See the introduction to Edward H. Schafer, Shore of Pearls (University of California Press, 1970).

6 Giovanni Andornino, “The Nature and Linkages of China’s Tributary System under the Ming and Qing Dynasties,” Global Economic History Network working paper 21 (2006).

7 Zou Keyuan, “The Sino-Vietnamese Agreement on Maritime Boundary Delimitation in the Gulf of Tonkin,” Ocean Development & International Law 36 (2005).

8 Asian Sentinel has published an excellent series of articles exposing the submarine scandal in Malaysia, but John Berthelsen’s individual piece provides a good synopsis: John Berthelsen, “Malaysia’s Submarine Scandal Surfaces in France,” Asian Sentinel (April 16, 2010).

9 These numbers are based primarily on material published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in “The Military Balance in Asia: 1990–2010.”