+44 (0) 203 137 7261
Recent China research
|China Weekly: A China case study: Bottled water adds to food safety problems, 14 May 2013|
|China Weekly: China’s White Goods: Survival of the biggest, 9 May 2013|
|China’s grain seeds sector gets a boost but openings for foreign companies will be limited, Fergus Naughton, 9 May 2013|
|China Report Update: Food safety, 8 May 2013|
See all our China research >>
Recent blog posts
China’s food safety – and the trust deficit,
7 May 2013
Rising confrontations and the China Dream,
2 May 2013
China’s regional policy dilemma deepens,
10 Apr 2013
Xi and his dream,
4 Apr 2013
See all China Blog posts >>
China plays its South-East Asia card
China does not do alliances. Its only treaty of mutual assistance is with North Korea dating from the war of six decades ago. It prefers to keep clear of engagements that would tie its hands and likes to cherry-pick among foreign powers with which it deals.
China’s aims. Consequently, Beijing’s approach to the tensions that have boiled up in its backyard of the South China Sea is to avoid commitments as it pursues its ultimate aims – to assert the right to drill into energy reserves and to limit US strategic influence. China wants to foster relations with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) mainly through trade agreements but it does not want anything that might become politically binding. So the outcome of the ASEAN foreign ministerial summit which has just ended in Cambodia was pretty satisfying for the People’s Republic.
China’s recent maritime confrontation with the Philippines ratcheted up the temperature in the region and might have been expected to prod the slow-moving Association to adopt a common defence stance. After all, none of the ASEAN nations has much interest in seeing China send naval craft into the sea to assert rights based on a map of uncertain provenance from the 1940s.
Call a friend. But China’s largess to poor neighbours means that it invariably has a friend it can depend on. In this case it was the host nation which blocked the drafting of a final statement by vetoing the attempt by the Philippines, backed by Vietnam, to include a reference to the confrontation this summer between its ships and Chinese naval vessels off the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Unwelcome as this was to Manila and Hanoi, not to mention Hillary Clinton who warned Beijing this month that the way it was approaching regional disputes was a recipe for “confrontation”, it was hardly surprising. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen describes the People’s Republic as his country’s best friend. China has built bridges, roads and dams in Cambodia; a US$4,200 million dam built by Sinohydro was opened at the end of last year in Kampot province and two more dams are due to be built under the aid programme.
Pacific pivot. The aborted Philippine-Vietnamese statement would have been welcome to Washington as it pursues President Obama’s “Pacific pivot”. The US enjoys great military preponderance in the region of course, but the new strategy of switching the focus from Europe to the Pacific runs up against the desire of most of the states there to develop good economic relations with the Mainland – and into the complications of local politics.
To take one example, the code of conduct for the South China Sea which ASEAN and China have agreed to negotiate has brought out divisions between members of the Association that have claims to areas in the sea and those which do not. Even the first group – Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia − have differing views on the scope of such a code; whatever the outcome, it will lack teeth since it will not be legally binding.
Call and response. The ongoing pattern in the area is now well established: the main players – China, Vietnam and the Philippines – react to moves by one or the other, then a general pull-back follows before the next round starts. The danger is that this will result in a hardening of positions and an upsurge in nationalism, not just in China but also in the other countries involved. Though serious escalation is unlikely, the danger of an accident setting off a larger crisis is always there. If carried out, China’s intention to invite bids for oil exploration in nine blocks in the South China Sea within the exclusive zone claimed by Vietnam would add a fresh dimension – provided that foreign oil companies actually bid.
The local factor. This may well not happen, given the risks involved of getting caught up in the regional dispute. But China clearly feels it is in the driving seat despite the relative backwardness of its naval and air forces compared with those deployed by the US in East Asia – or, at least, it has decided to maintain a high profile by continuing to send trawlers and naval ships into disputed waters.
Washington can offer its friends in East Asia from Japan to the Philippines military protection, with visits to Vietnam by high-level defence officials and increased ties with Manila. But its political clout is restrained by the network of interest which China has developed – Beijing grants Cambodia 10 times as much aid as the US. As the former US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill had it, all politics is local. (Subscribers see our report Why China Will Come Out Top in East Asia.)