In claiming the South China Sea, China destroys warm fuzzy feelings. Good.
Some, like ‘peaceful rise’ are of China’s own creation. Others like ‘G-2’ are outputs of wishful thinking in the United States. Still others, like ASEAN being a coherent geo-political entity are indulgences of the Southeast Asian elite.
These myths never stood up to scrutiny. But a few days ago they were all shattered by China’s foreign minister. Spectacularly so.
We are, of course, referring to the dust-up between the United States, Viet Nam and some ASEAN countries in the blue corner, and the China in the red at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Ha Noi. [See John Pomfret’s article in the Washington Post, Minxin Pei in The Diplomat and this editorial in the Global Times for the background]
This year, China moved from drawing maps claiming the South China Sea as its own to announcing that it considers that piece of maritime real-estate as much a core interest as Tibet and Tibet. Since it will unambiguously use force to retain and annex these territories respectively, Beijing has just threatened to use force to settle the maritime boundary dispute. Lest people not take the hint, it has let it be known, through its media mouthpiece, that “China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.” Did we mention that all this is after it pledged to use only peaceful means in an agreement with ASEAN nations in 2002? There goes ‘peaceful rise’.
Now consider the extraordinary statement issued by China’s foreign ministry after the ARF meeting. Consider also, that not only has China protected North Korea after the latter sank a South Korean naval ship, it even deterred the United States from conducting a punitive show of force against Pyongyang. And some people thought the two countries can solve the world’s problems?
Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, explicitly tore ASEAN’s geopolitical pretenses to shreds, by noting that the non-claimants to the South China Sea dispute were on its side. It is for ASEAN now to decide to unite on behalf of some of its members or let China dictate terms to them, individually, through bilateral negotiations. The outcome of the ARF suggests that each ASEAN country is looking out for itself, even after the United States threw its hat in the ring.
The shattering of these myths is a good thing—even if the implications are not. Even so, it is better for the world to engage China in a clear-eyed manner, rather than under some political correct subterfuge. What does this mean for India? Read my Pax Indica column tomorrow.