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Published On: Sat, Jan 7th, 2017

Beijing Wants to Boost China – ASEAN Relations: Win-Win vs Claw-or-Paw

Christof Lehmann (nsnbc) : China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, during his weekly press conference, in the first week of January 2017, said that the government in Beijing always regarded ASEAN as being a priority with regard to neighborly policies and diplomacy. The statement came against the backdrop of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary and tense relations between Beijing and many of its neighbors.

tiger_tiger-eye_public-domain2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN as well as the year of the China – ASEAN tourist cooperation. The latter is presenting opportunities for both China and ASEAN member States.

China’s developing middle class and the growing number of Chinese tourists who venture out of the country for holidays in the Philippines, Vietnam, and other ASEAN countries is viewed as a welcome source of revenue. But Beijing would like to develop relations with ASEAN members on further fronts.

Geng Shuang said China (the People’s Republic of China) would work with ASEAN to enhance communication on policies, alignments of strategies and practical cooperation, deepen all-around cooperation covering trade, connectivity and production capacity, fully implement the 3rd Five-year Action Plan, and realize the agreements of the upgraded China-ASEAN Free Trade Area. He said China stands ready to offer its support to the Philippines in executing its role as the ASEAN rotating chair and elevating Chinese-ASEAN relations to new heights.

There is little doubt that China is the primus motor of the development of Asian economies, if not of the global economy. However, some would say Beijing is not a paper tiger. It does not have to brandish its claws in its relationships with smaller neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines, among others. Lifting its paws has sufficient suggestive and intimidating power, would some of its neighbors say. Chinese tourists bring revenue to the Philippines, to Vietnam and Malaysia, Indonesia, among others, and it is appreciated. Other business ventures are being appreciated too.

Win-Win vs “Paw-or-Claw”?

South China Sea_territorial Claims_Map_China_Vietnam_Malaysia_Brunei_Taiwan_Beijing’s political, economic and military strategy with regard to ASEAN member States and disputes is that China insists on discussing disputes with each individual country, while Beijing uses its economic and political leverage to prevent ASEAN members from reaching a consensus. Especially the weakest ASEAN members will be able to understand China’s almost Pavlovian Win-Win vs Paw-or-Claw policy.

Philippines

In October 2016 the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing with an entourage, comprising top-government officials and about 500 businessmen. One issue that was discussed behind closed doors was China’s claims within its so-called nine-dashed line that encompasses almost all of the South China Sea that led to disputes between China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia.

Discussions also focused on the Recto Bank, a.k.a. the Reed Bank and other areas which are close to the Philippines and firmly under Philippine control. However, the Philippine Forum Energy Plc. holds the license for Service Contract 72. The concession covers the Recto Bank, a.k.a. Reed Bank. Forum Energy Plc. is a subsidiary of Philex Petroleum Corporation which is led by Manuel Pangilian, one of the 500 business delegates in Duterte’s entourage. The company acquired the license, including the right to conduct explorative drillings in the area a few years ago from the Department of Energy. However, the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines which began escalating in 2012 prompted the government in Manila to issue a moratorium for exploration activities.

duterte_beijing_china_oct-18-2016The two sides were not openly discussing details about territorial disputes during Duterte’s visit to Beijing, although the issue may be discussed, and some analysts would say should have been discussed as part of some of some of the deals that are expected to be signed during Duterte’s visit. The four-day visit was primarily aiming at mending ties and confidence building between the governments of these two nations and at boosting bilateral relations and economic cooperation, said others. Others again would note that Beijing “wisely” made use of the fact that the Duterte administration attempts to have the Philippines become less dependent on the United States.

Some Philippine analysts would note that being a small country that is being squeezed in between two superpowers is no more easy than dancing on a tightrope. It is within this context that many said that discussing the territorial disputes right from the start is widely considered as counterproductive and a sensitive issue in both China and in the Philippines.

Duterte met Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and top legislator Zhang Dejiang. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who said: “This is a historic visit, and presents an opportunity for relations between China and the Philippines to restart on a fresh, more positive footing”. He also lauded Duterte’s commitment to improving bilateral ties and voicing support for dialogue and cooperation between the two nations. Wang noted that the visit accords with the national interests of the Philippines and the wishes of its people. No foreign force can stand in the way of improvements to China-Philippines relations, Wang said, adding that China’s arms are open and ready for friendship and cooperation.

Well, China is indeed interested in expanding its influence in the region and looking for strategic partnerships, in its own interests, in cooperation with neighbors, and Beijing is also aiming to sideline the USA. Not surprisingly then, that Chinese State media, despite the foreign minister’s praise, insist that China’s sovereignty within the nine-dashed-line is beyond question. Duterte, for his part, was facing stiff criticism before his departure, when Associate Justice Antonio Carpio threatened that Duterte could face impeachment proceedings if he made territorial concessions about the Scarborough Shoal. Off protocol one of the Philippine delegates told nsnbc that  promised Duterte to “have a look at the possibility  to cut back large-scale, arguably illegal, Chinese fisheries at the Scarborough Shoal”.

Vietnam

A satellite image shows what CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says appears to be anti-aircraft guns and what are likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on the artificial island Hughes Reef in the South China Sea in this image released on December 13, 2016. Courtesy CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe/

A satellite image shows what CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says appears to be anti-aircraft guns and what are likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on the artificial island Hughes Reef in the South China Sea in this image released on December 13, 2016. Courtesy CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe/

In October 2016 Vietnam sharply criticized Beijing for “holding elections” in Sansha, Beijing’s “administrative capital” in the disputed Paracel Islands. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Le Hai Binh blasted China over elections of deputies held in so-called Sansha prefecture and illegal patrols in the Hoang Sa archipelago as a serious violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty.

Later in October 2016 Vietnam urged Beijing not to militarize the situation further, but Beijing chose to show ASEAN member Vietnam that the tiger’s silky paw also had claws. By December 2016 Vietnam raised concerns over what it assumes are anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons systems by China on artificial islands in disputed South China Sea territories.

Vietnam reiterated that it strongly opposes any activity that violates its sovereignty and militarizes the region, as well as any activity that could be “threatening peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in the East Sea” He stressed that Vietnam has full legal grounds and historical evidence to prove its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos.

Foreign Minister Le Hai Binh’s statement followed a report published by CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, published earlier this week, featuring commercially available Digital Globe satellite images. The images show what appears to be anti-aircraft guns and what are likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on the artificial island Hughes Reef in the South China Sea, reported CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency.

A destroyed land bridge (top) is seen in this view of a North Island, near Tree Island and Woody Island in the Paracel chain, in the South China Sea November 14, 2016 in this Planet Labs handout

A destroyed land bridge (top) is seen in this view of a North Island, near Tree Island and Woody Island in the Paracel chain, in the South China Sea November 14, 2016 in this Planet Labs handout

That is, Vietnam is concerned that China continues the militarization of the artificially created islands and the disputed territory in general. Earlier this year Vietnam complained about local elections held in disputed territories, denouncing it as China’s attempt of a de-facto annexation. Vietnam has, like the Philippines and Malaysia repeatedly been confronted with Chinese fishing fleets, protected by armed Chinese Coast Guard vessels, in their territorial or disputed waters.

Vietnam’s position with regard to the disputed islands is such: In 1974, taking advantage of the withdrawal of the American troops from the Vietnam War, China invaded the Paracels. A brief but bloody naval battle with forces of the then U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam ensued. Vietnam maintains that China illegally occupied the islands ever since, but a post-1975 united Vietnam has never relinquished its sovereignty. The Spratlys are claimed in part or whole by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

However, later in December 2016 China aggravated the situation even further by launching daily charter flights to Woody Island and Beijing’s “administrative capital” in the South China Sea.

Malaysia
Taiwan Shark Fins, courtesy Eazy Traveler Wikimedia CC 2.0

Taiwan Shark Fins, courtesy Eazy Traveler Wikimedia CC 2.0

Speaking about revenue from Chinese tourism. In February 2016 Malaysia launched plans for issuing e-visa for Chinese travelers. That said, Malaysia has repeatedly complained about the intrusion of Chinese fishing fleets, protected by armed Chinese coast guard vessels, into Malaysia’s territorial and into disputed waters. Meanwhile, Beijing’s State news agency Xinhua plays down such reports by showing idyllic Chinese harbors with small coastal fining vessels – while reiterating that “China’s nine-dashed-line in the South China Sea cannot be disputed”.

In March 2016 Malaysia summoned Beijing’s Ambassador to Kuala Lumpur to voice Malaysia’s concerns about what it described as an encroachment by a large number of Chinese-flagged fishing boats in the South China Sea. Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry has since reiterated that the Malaysian Coast Guard had observed the Chinese-flagged fishing boats, adding that these boats were accompanied by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel.

The Foreign Ministry explained that it had summoned Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China to Malaysia, Huang Huikang, to seek clarification. The fishing operations continue unabated and with China’s insistence on a “one-China” principle, one cannot ignore that Taiwan is internationally regarded as one of the worst pirates when it comes to illegal fisheries.

Indonesia

Indonesia has no territorial disputes with China. In March 2016 Indonesia affirmed its neutrality in the South China Sea dispute. Indonesia also urges China and its neighbors not to militarize the conflict. Moreover, it offered to play a role in resolving disputes between South and North Korea.

Mount Rani, Natuna Islands. Photo courtesy a-rabin, CC-2.0

Mount Rani, Natuna Islands. Photo courtesy a-rabin, CC-2.0

However, Indonesia also commissioned 12 submarines to address “emerging security challenges“. Moreover, in May Indonesia decided to upgrade its Air Force with SU-35 jets from Russia.

In July  2016 Jakarta announced that it will build military bases including an air base on the Natuna Islands as the South China Sea Dispute Destabilizes Region. Later that month Indonesia announced that it will sink confiscated vessels that have been caught in illegal fishing operations.

One of the challenges ASEAN faces is, arguably the challenge to overcome internal divisions. Playing win-win with Beijing is of course a good principle provided that it’s not based on submission to a Paw-or-Claw policy; and a more united pride of smaller cats would probably be able to lure some bigger fish out of a tiger’s claws.

CH/L – nsnbc 07.01.2016

About the Author

- Dr. Christof Lehmann is the founder and editor of nsnbc. He is a psychologist and former independent political consultant on conflict, conflict resolution and a wide range of other political issues. In March 2013 he established nsnbc as a daily, independent, international on-line newspaper. He can be contacted at nsnbc international at nsnbc.wordpress@gmail.com

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