Illustration by Nathaniel Russell
Illustration by Nathaniel Russell

For more than three decades, China has been courting its neighbors to the south. Enticing the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) into closer cooperation has been a top goal of Chinese foreign policy since the days of Deng Xiaoping, and it has brought great rewards.

In 2010 the two sides entered into a free-trade agreement that created one of the world’s largest integrated markets. But now, with its aggressive attitude on demarcation lines in the South China Sea, China risks throwing it all away. Why?

Up to about two years ago, everything, including diplomatic affairs and trade, seemed to be developing swimmingly between China and its southern neighbors. Even with Vietnam, China’s opponent in a brief border-war in 1979, relations had improved markedly. Leaders in Hanoi were looking to Beijing both for advice on how to run a one-party Communist state and on how to reform its economy into a market-driven engine of growth. Some Southeast Asian countries with large Chinese minorities were, for the first time, beginning to see these groups as an opportunity in dealing with China, rather than as a threat.

Then things changed markedly. At a 2010 regional forum in Hanoi, the usually equipoised Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi fumed at his Southeast Asian hosts for their mutual solidarity and their perceived attempts to enlist U.S. support in their long-brewing disagreements over who had sovereignty over portions of the South China Sea.

’Big State’

“There is one basic difference among us,” Yang is supposed to have said. “China is a big state and you are smaller countries.” He infuriated not only the Vietnamese, but the truly big countries that were present, such as Indonesia. I met with a senior Indonesian policy maker in Jakarta soon afterward. “We are a serious country,” he bristled. “We will not be treated like this.”

Since then, China’s relations with Southeast Asia have been sinking fast. There have been clashes at sea between China and two other South China Sea claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines. Some countries are looking again at the content of the free-trade agreement, feeling that it gives China too much influence. Chinese attempts to use its power within the weaker Asean countries -- Cambodia and Burma -- to prevent a united front within the organization have backfired badly. The bigger countries now suspect that China is out to break up Asean (if given half a chance). In spite of recent Chinese restraint (at least verbally), relations seem to go from bad to worse.

What is at stake is not only a settlement of the disputed claims to zones of maritime control in the South China Sea (and the rights to exploit the resources that lie beneath them). It is the whole future relationship between China and the region. Even as the U.S. is encouraging negotiations and peaceful settlements, it is strengthening its regional role. Every big Asean country has drawn considerably closer to Washington over the past year or so. China’s policy has therefore been almost entirely self-defeating in terms of its long-term interests.

Why is China acting the way it does? The underwater resources at stake are deemed to be considerable and crucial to China’s future development.

Nationalist public opinion in China demands a tough stance on territorial issues, as the conflict with Japan over the East China Sea islands has also recently shown. There is genuine anger in Beijing about Asean’s efforts to seek U.S. support and about what is seen as an unwillingness to negotiate based on China’s demands. Some Chinese naval officers are bucking to test China’s newly gained capabilities for offshore naval deployment.

Immature Diplomacy

But at the root of the problem lies exactly what Yang alluded to in Hanoi. Because of a heritage that goes back to the deeper past, China regards its position within the region as unique. It is the big country and other countries must treat it as such. This does not preclude meaningful negotiations or a respect for the sovereignty of others. But it does imply a position for China that puts its views and its claims in a different category than those of other states. Especially in the long run, it is an attitude that will not serve China well.

China’s approach to Asean on the South China Sea disputes points to a country whose diplomacy is still remarkably immature and not ready to take on a regional leadership role. It does not slowly integrate its neighbors and putative partners into a cooperative constellation of states that may serve China’s interests and that also demonstrably serves the interests of others. This is what the U.S. did with its main allies after World War II. Instead, the PRC’s leaders seem hell-bound on looking after its own interests and challenging those of its neighbors, from Korea to Myanmar. This policy will not win China its much coveted regional role, not to mention a position as a global great power.

China’s demands on the South China Sea are not even clear. Officially the country claims “historical rights” over a vaguely defined section of ocean that covers most of the maritime regions to its south. That claim is often symbolized by a nine-dashed line on maritime maps, which would -- in effect -- recognize almost all of the South China Sea as Chinese. This is, to put it mildly, a nonsensical position that will not stand under international law. Most serious Chinese diplomats know this (though I am sometimes shocked by how many do not).

The best thing that China could do now would be to define its actual demands. This would include coming to terms with the fact that the country, at best, can only lay claim to a 12-nautical-mile zone around the islets. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, small islands that cannot sustain human habitation do not have the right to a 200 mile exclusive economic zone. So instead of the “right” to all of the South China Sea, which many Chinese think they claim, the real maximum demand will be much more modest. This should sober minds in Beijing and elsewhere.

In the meantime, China and the other countries should adopt the new Indonesian proposal for an interim international code of conduct in the South China Sea. It calls for concrete confidence building and conflict prevention measures, including a reduction of military activity in the region. For the time being, that may be as close to calm as we can get within these troubled waters.

(Odd Arne Westad is a professor of history at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the author of the just-published “Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750.”)

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To contact the writer of this article: Odd Arne Westad at A.Westad@lse.ac.uk.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.