Is China being bullied by the Philippines?

The disproportionate negotiating power of strategic proxies

Today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

The small-country bullies
China’s aggressive posturing over maritime boundaries has caused East Asian countries to look at other powers for support

It’s those Chinese fishing vessels again. Last month they ventured into a shoal in the South China Sea, presumably hunting for giant clams, when they were apprehended by the Philippines’ naval patrols. If the Philippines claims the Scarborough shoal – a few hectares worth of low-lying rocks 200 kilometres from its shores – China claims the entire South China Sea as its own. In what has become a familiar pattern over the last few years, the Chinese fishing vessels triggered off a confrontation that quickly escalated into a maritime and diplomatic stand-off. Chinese tourists left the Philippines, and Filipino bananas face an uncertain prospect now in clearing China’s food safety tests.

The two countries are now trying to back off at this time, but not before the “w” word surfaced in the popular discourse.
War? Over some uninhabited rocks in the middle of nowhere? Between China (GDP $7.3 trillion, defence budget $106.4 billion) and the Philippines (GDP $213 billion, defence budget $2.3 billion)? Who would want it?

Not China. While it certainly wants to keep its territorial claims alive by letting intrepid fishing vessels do to South China Sea islands what dogs do to lamp posts, it knows that an outright military conflict will be counterproductive to its longer-term interests.

Provocative fishing vessels and Beijing’s aggressive diplomatic posturing over maritime boundaries have already caused East Asian countries to look at the United States, India and other powers for support. In case China finds itself in a war with the Philippines, opposition to Beijing will consolidate, and the US will make strategic inroads into the region, making it harder for China to achieve its goal of dominating the Western Pacific.

The US too does not want a war. It has a military alliance with the Philippines, and Manila could call upon US support if it is attacked. Washington is understandably reluctant to let itself be dragged into a war against a great power by a small ally over a tiny issue. The Obama administration has signalled that territorial disputes are outside the scope of the defence pact. Even so, if it is seen as shirking from supporting its ally, the value of Washington’s strategic promissory notes in East Asia will sharply depreciate. It cannot, however, support its ally without provoking Beijing. A war would cause the US to choose between losing its reputation and getting into an unwanted confrontation with China.

Most East Asian countries do not want war either. They have spent the last decade attempting to engineer “regional security architectures” – essentially multilateral forums that discuss security issues – that hope to solve tricky geopolitical disputes without being bullied and without having to fight. Yet for all its achievements, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) has little to show in terms of ability to manage armed conflict, even between its member states. Thailand, for instance, has stonewalled the deployment of Indonesian military observers over its border dispute with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple.

Nor has Asean been very vocal in insisting that China comply with the code of conduct in the South China Sea they agreed to in 2002. Its member states are unlikely to want their solidarity to be put to the kind of test that a China-Philippines naval conflict would entail.

What about the Philippines itself? For Manila, maritime boundaries in the South China Sea assume an economic significance that goes beyond nationalistic sentiment over territory. The seabed is supposed to have rich reserves of oil and natural gas, although estimates vary. The technology to exploit natural gas fields in the South China Sea is maturing. China National Offshore Oil Corporation already has semi-submersible deep sea drilling platforms. Manila has its eyes on healthy revenue streams from energy exports which can make a substantial difference to its fiscal position and overall economic health.

This, coupled with the security guarantee the Philippines enjoys by virtue of its alliance with the US, has caused it to stand firm and confront China. So much so that Dai Bingguo, one of Beijing’s top foreign policy hands, accused the Philippines, “a smaller country”, of bullying China. He has a point. As China’s leaders ought to know all too well, small countries that are backed by great powers have disproportionate negotiating power, and they “bully” both their adversaries and their backers. The Philippines might calculate that it has relatively less to lose by letting tensions escalate.

That’s the main risk — when pesky fishing boats, Chinese law enforcement vessels and Philippines naval ships are facing off each other, an accidental trigger can cause an unintentional escalation. Given the turbulence in China’s civil-military relations ahead of this autumn’s leadership transition, and the numerous Chinese state agencies engaged in the South China Sea, the risk of escalation is higher on its side. The onus, therefore, is on Beijing to keep a lid on the tensions.

Unrelated to the stand-off, a contingent of four warships from the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command is on a routine long-range overseas deployment to the South China Sea, and ports in China and the Philippines are among those it will call on. It does come at an interesting time, given its mission of what the Navy terms “generating goodwill among the neighbouring countries”.

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The Asian Balance: Assessing India’s East Asian engagement

Geoeconomics is the key to the seas East of Singapore

This was published in yesterday’s Business Standard.

The Asian Balance turns one today. It had promised to “devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be an unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca”. If anniversaries are a good time for some reflection, recent events make it even more necessary.

I had argued that three factors would shape the Asian balance. First, nuclear deterrence would shift the India-China context away from direct military conflict along the disputed land borders to theatres in and around the Indian Ocean. Second, the small- and medium-sized countries of East Asia would look towards India to help them counter the pressures arising from China’s geopolitical assertiveness. Third, the whole effort to create “one workable grouping (such as the East Asia Summit) is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to”.

It is not uncommon to hear Indian commentators lament how China is expanding its presence in countries traditionally considered close to India, how it has hardened its posture on the border dispute, and how it continues to prop up the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. New Delhi could do little about much of this because, by and large, it lacks direct levers. The structural geopolitics of the subcontinent leads to our neighbours welcoming an outside power to balance India.

Seen from the confines of a subcontinental mindset, New Delhi appears to have few options between resigned hand-wringing and reckless aggressiveness, both accompanied by rhetorical frenzy. But if you realise that the game board of the raja-mandala is global, New Delhi doesn’t look that helpless any more. Continue reading The Asian Balance: Assessing India’s East Asian engagement

Pax Indica: East of Singapore

The waters east of Singapore hold the key to the lands west of the Indus

Yesterday’s post was about the developments in East Asia. In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue that India must be part of the security equilibrium in that region. Excerpts:

India’s strategic power projection will not be unwelcome in South East Asia. It will also enable the United States to remain engaged in Afghanistan-Pakistan by freeing up resources that might otherwise be employed in the western Pacific. Also, regardless of what the United States does, an Indian strategic commitment in East Asia will strengthen its overall negotiation position with China.

Whatever might have caused China to bully its neighbours this year, it has opened another window of opportunity for India to engage with the region. Pre-occupied as it is with the game in the north-western part of the subcontinent, it is unclear if New Delhi sufficiently realises that the seas east of Singapore hold the key to the lands west of the Indus.

India must vastly increase its economic, diplomatic and military presence in and beyond South East Asia. [Yahoo! India]

The many myths that Yang shattered

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.

Image: 'BBC'

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.