Pavlovian conditioning and ‘correct thinking’ on the South China Sea

by Bilahari Kausikan / APR 1, 2016 /

On a global scale, China is not a clearly revisionist power. But Beijing wants to reclaim something of its historical centrality in East Asia. The United States has emphasised that it intends to remain an East Asian power.

The strategic challenge for China is therefore how to shift the US from the very centre of the East Asian strategic equation and occupy that space, but without provoking responses from the US and Japan that could jeopardise Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. For the US the strategic challenge is how to accommodate China, while reassuring friends and allies that it intends to hold its position without stumbling into conflict.

The South China Sea (SCS) is not the only issue in US-China relations; it is perhaps not even the most important issue in their relationship. But the SCS is today the issue where the parameters of US-China competition and their interests are most clearly defined. Like it or not, the region will draw conclusions about American resolve and Chinese intentions from the SCS issue, which will also shape perceptions of Asean.

It would be tedious to recount every instance of China’s use of force or unilateral assertions of sovereignty backed by the threat of force in the SCS. In 2012, China established Sansha City under Hainan Province, with jurisdiction over the disputed Paracels and Spratly Islands as well as Macclesfield Bank. The following year, it promulgated the Hainan Fishing Regulations, which were an assertion of domestic law over contested areas. China has since become more aggressive in enforcing what it considers its domestic rights in the SCS.

Since 2013, China has begun an ambitious programme of land reclamation in the SCS, has constructed various kinds of structures on the new artificial islands and deployed military assets on some of them. China has argued that it was not the first to reclaim land or deploy military assets in the SCS. This may be true but is irrelevant.

The speed and scope of China’s reclamation dwarf anything any other claimant has done and the actions of a major power will always convey a different signature than those of small countries. China’s argument that the infrastructure it has built is a common good for the benefit of all users of the SCS hardly seems intended to be believed.

China continues to engage Asean on a code of conduct (COC) for the SCS but in a barely convincing way. Progress has been glacial and Chinese diplomats often hold discussions on the COC hostage to Asean refraining from taking positions on the SCS that displease China. On occasion, Chinese diplomats even seem to have perversely gone out of their way to accentuate rather than assuage anxieties.

Once, after our Prime Minister spoke on the SCS at an Asean Summit, a senior Chinese diplomat told one of my younger colleagues that “silence is golden”. If he meant to suggest that we were not entitled to a view on an important issue that affects our interests, he only undermined the credibility of China’s claim to “peaceful development”.

This was not an isolated incident nor has Singapore been particularly singled out. China routinely attempts to pressure Asean members, with varying degrees of success, not to raise the SCS in Asean-led forums or not to support other countries which do so. Read more..


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