US-China Rivalry and the Quasi-war in ASEAN – 2019 China Focus Essay Contest Winner

The 2019 China Focus Essay Contest winners are Bailey Marsheck at Yenching Academy of Peking University and Michael Ostique at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. Their essays answered the question, “identify one important domain of US-China competition and discuss one region where this issue will be key and its significance to US-China relations.” China Focus partnered with the UC-Fudan Center on Contemporary China to offer each winner $1000! Congratulations to our 2019 winners!

Below is Michael Joseph Ostique’s winning entry

Not enough credit is given to China for skillfully applying one of its most influential philosophies in rising to become a world power in a stealthy manner – The Art of War is subduing one’s enemy without fighting. The last time the Soviet Union challenged the dominance of the United States led to the Cold War; the rise of post Meiji Restoration Japan and Nazi Germany thrusted the world into its bloodiest war yet. But China’s emergence from its hundred years of humiliation from Imperial rule is characterized not by aggression, but by economic leadership and non-conditional foreign aid, accession to and an increasingly pivotal role in international treaties such as the Paris Accord and WTO, and a shift from abstaining to vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that threaten peace and security. Ask a foreigner in Shanghai about China’s power and the answer will always be “soft”: China is getting better at winning people over to the East by leveraging the status quo left by a receding West, instead of challenging it.

But the only aspect where China is a revisionist power lies to the south. China’s sweeping territorial claim in the South China Sea through the 9-dash line engulfing practically all islands, reefs, structures and marine bodies thereby effectively disregarding the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of both mainland and maritime ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), is challenged by the US. China cites historical exclusive ownership of the entire South China Sea when, after the fall of Japan at the end of World War II, it sent Han villagers to fish in southern seas.

What once were fishing boats are now navy ships and hangars patrolling the disputed islands and harassing passersby. US, an omnipresent geopolitical player in the Asia Pacific, is one of them and occasionally confronts China’s domination of the ASEAN-surrounding seas. For its part, the US asserts its freedom of navigation, as protected by customary international law, to roam freely and unimpeded. But the US has also deliberately challenged China’s claims when, instead of passing through continuously, it performs military drills in maritime segments excluded from the UNCLOS definition of contiguous zones of China’s claimed islands but within the entire area claimed by China, therefore, directly challenging the legality of China’s occupation under international law.

However, China’s outright and categorical rejection of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling favoring the Philippines, which protested Chinese encroachment into Philippine EEZ, and invalidating China’s historical and 9-dash claims only reveals China’s disregard for a compromise, let alone acquiescence, in its claims. China dismissed the verdict for being biased and tainted by US influence and went on to accuse the US directly of hypocrisy for supporting the verdict because it favors US’ interests, whereas the US repeatedly denies other territorial rulings that jeopardize its own claims.

Although the arbitration was aimed at finally resolving the conflicting claims, what ensued was a stalemate.

However, the game has a third and deciding player – ASEAN itself. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei all have territorial and EEZ claims at odds with the 9-dash line. But while the US opposes the Chinese interpretation of the UNCLOS EEZ, these ASEAN states reject China’s claims altogether. As in the Philippine precedent case, there is no basis to China’s historical assertion because China should not be there in the first place. The Scarborough Shoal, often the site of confrontation between Chinese and Philippine troops, is part of the Philippine EEZ; hence, China’s thwarting of Filipinos from fishing in their own seas is illegal.

The escalating situation calls for an expedited ratification of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, of which ASEAN nations and China are parties. The declaration ensures all parties abide by UNCLOS laws and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, exercise self-restraint, resolve conflicts through peaceful settlement and negotiation, and maintain the peace and security within the region.

But the calls remain unheeded. In 2012, ASEAN failed to issue a joint communique denouncing China’s activities in the South China Sea. This is due to Cambodia’s dissent preventing a consensus among ASEAN members. This was a huge win for China, whose close ties with Cambodia were seen to be responsible for the failure. But China is in no podium finish yet. The calls against Chinese encroachment are only getting louder, with Vietnam and Indonesia recently taking more serious offensive action and the US flexing its diplomatic muscle among its Asia Pacific allies. In mid 2019, US Secretary Mike Pompeo visited ASEAN nations bearing the promise of US partnership and protection amidst the growing concerns in the South China Sea.

ASEAN is a US bailiwick. US has mutual defense treaties with Thailand and the Philippines, and has mutual defense cooperation with Singapore. This bodes ill for China as its military power will not match the US’ and its strategic alliances in the region. The US presence in South China Sea has effectively maintained the balance of power, subsequently, preventing China from taking over.

However, with the US’ increasingly isolationist policies, the treaties have been relegated to mere zhilaohu, paper tiger in Mandarin, apparently threatening with fangs but which cannot bite. Moreover, China is enlarging its economic clout in ASEAN. Already, the Philippines has pivoted towards a deeper bilateral relationship with China, alienating its US ally. Thailand is a recipient of China’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure development projects, while Singapore is heavily reliant on China in terms of trade and inward and investments. As the economies of ASEAN and China become more intertwined, so does their relationship.

What’s more, ASEAN is a diverse region with a significant group of Chinese immigrants. Although the Southeast Asians of Chinese descent have evolved to be ideologically independent from their motherland, a certain level of affinity lubricates the ASEAN-China relations. In fact, China is ASEAN’s largest trading and investment partner and this is largely attributed not to geographical proximity or market size, but in the congruence of their respective cultures and business practices. Why is this significant? Although ASEAN has traditionally looked out to the US to balance China, China’s soft power is much more welcome in ASEAN today. One need not look farther than the Sinophilic policies of ASEAN governments. Although China’s ambition to exclude the US in the South China Sea dispute with ASEAN is a far cry from reality, the fact of the matter is that the US is losing its grip.

Neither acceding to China’s bullying nor keeping the status quo in the South China Sea addresses ASEAN’s problems. As ASEAN moves into the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), it will have to forge a strong political-security pillar with a decisive consensual solution to security threats in the region. This means it will eventually stand up to China and will exhaust all possible diplomatic means to reclaim the lost territories. But ASEAN’s principles of consensus and non-interference will continue to get in the way.

Unlike the European Union, ASEAN does not have a supranational body that monitors, enforces, and resolves claims and conflicts; for example, the independent commissions and councils of the European Union Court of Justice were instrumentaL in attaining an arbitral award in favor of the Netherlands in the Arctic Sunrise Case versus Russia. ASEAN presumably has fewer institutions, codes, and a weaker decisive action on conflict resolution. If the ability to resolve conflicts were commensurate with the development of a regional bloc, ASEAN should be more effective than South America’s UNASUR. But in 2012, UNASUR demonstrated a united body when all member nations prevented ships carrying Falkland flags from docking into their ports in support of Argentina which lost the islands to United Kingdom. This action can be seen as more decisive than ASEAN’s way of dealing with China.

Thus, with ASEAN’s institutional weakness, the pervading influence of both China and the US will steer the fate of the AEC. There are, nevertheless, a few directions that will firm up the AEC while simmering down the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea or aligning with either one.

Firstly, the US should proactively participate in security dialogues between China and ASEAN. China has already been engaging in the ASEAN Regional Forum, an avenue initiated by ASEAN to resolve regional conflicts. The ASEAN Regional Forum, together with the ASEAN Way of soft diplomacy, negotiations, and non-interference have transformed ASEAN into one of the most stable regions in the world despite the occasional stand-off along disputed islands.

US participation will elucidate the differing interpretations of UNCLOS laws between US and China and, more importantly, will act as a balance to China’s domination in ASEAN. With a number of ASEAN members already a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the US should step in to provide a security resort from the potential, although unlikely, Chinese debt trap. In fact, critics have warned that Chinese loans risk territories, such as Philippine patrimonial assets, becoming collaterals which might end up getting taken over by China. The US should also be a party to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea so as to normalize its presence within the region.

Moreover, China has indicated its willingness to resolve conflicts bilaterally. It has done the same with a number of ASEAN members. However, the lack of consensus among ASEAN members has made it impossible for an ASEAN-China bilateral agreement to take place. This effectively weakens ASEAN’s claim in the South China Sea. Likewise, China and the US must conduct bilateral talks on their activities in the South China Sea if both were to strengthen the peace and stability situation.

Finally, for ASEAN, a certain level of flexibility from ASEAN Way principles must be observed and allowed to address pressing issues especially those that affect individual member states. One of these is the ASEAN Minus X formula, which is already used in multilateral economic arrangements, and that should be extended to address political challenges as well. Through this, ASEAN may render decisions as a bloc that would benefit ASEAN amidst the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea.

Ultimately, the rise of ASEAN and its institutions through the AEC will defuse the antagonism between the US and China in the South China Sea. As one power rises, another retreats. A stronger ASEAN will dilute the role of the US in the Asia Pacific region. But this need not happen if the US wakes up from its isolation and assume its role in the current balance of power in the ASEAN region. US involvement and cooperation with ASEAN will instead weaken China’s claims. This is already seen in China’s willingness to discuss, and the US should jump the figurative gun.

(Image by ASEAN)

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Michael Joseph Ostique

Michael is a candidate of Master of Economics at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Life Science from the National University of Singapore and a Minor in Engineering Entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania. Originally from the Philippines, he spent a large part of his life in Singapore where he also worked in private sector research and consulting, and holds an Advanced Certificate in Market and Social Research Practice. After graduation, he will pursue a foreign service officer post back in his home country.

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