Why Asia’s Maritime Disputes Are Not Just About China

When it comes to feuds in the Pacific over islands and what lies beneath, it's not simply a case of China against everyone else

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Anti-China protester and former Philippine police officer Abner Afuang burns a Chinese flag in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila on July 27, 2012

Much of the international coverage and commentary about the disputes over islands in East Asian waters has concentrated on the battle in the South China Sea for territory and resources. And much of that has been framed as a morality play in which China is the villain, most other Asian nations are victims, and the U.S. is a Solomonic figure. On Aug. 10 the Wall Street Journal, referring to Beijing, published an editorial titled “The Bully of the South China Sea.” In another article, Robert Manning of the Washington-based Atlantic Council wrote: “It is one thing if, in a rules-based world, China seeks a larger role in shaping the rules, commensurate with increased economic and political weight. It is quite another if the message is simply about power.” Even Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and an unabashed booster of the global rise of Asia and in particular China, has been critical of Beijing. In a syndicated column Mahbubani said that “China has begun to make serious mistakes” in its dealings with its neighbors.

To be sure, China has upped the ante in the South China Sea stakes and angered, in particular, some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Beijing has established the Sansha municipality and garrison on an island in the Paracels, which China as well as Vietnam and Taiwan claim. It has engaged in a tense naval standoff with the Philippines over a reef called Scarborough Shoal. It has invited foreign companies to tender for oil and gas in disputed waters. The reasons that pundits give for Beijing’s bellicosity range from its appetite for the natural resources of the South China Sea to its desire to look tough amid an uncertain leadership transition and to stir some nationalist fervor at home (witness the violent anti-Japanese protests on the mainland during the weekend) to its irritation at what it thinks is Washington’s interference in its backyard. At a regional conference two years ago, in remarks now often cited as a sign of China’s unilateral ambitions in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi infamously declared the body of water to be a “core national interest,” adding: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

(MORE: Turf Wars: A Guide to East Asia’s Maritime Disputes)

It is, but there are other, wider truths. When it comes to feuds in the Pacific over islands and what lies beneath, it’s not simply a case of China against everyone else. Depending on the dispute, it’s also South Korea vs. Japan, Japan vs. Taiwan, Taiwan vs. Vietnam, Vietnam vs. Cambodia and numerous other permutations — for many of the same reasons supposedly behind China’s actions. Resource grab. Patriotic posturing. Historical baggage (mostly to do with Japan’s brutal occupation of most of East Asia before and through World War II). Referring to the South China Sea, former ASEAN secretary general Rodolfo Severino, who now heads Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, wrote recently that “all claimants feel their footholds are essential to what they consider their national interests … This clash of national interests … makes it most difficult even to appear to be making compromises on national integrity or maritime regimes and, thus, almost impossible to resolve [the] disputes.”

Washington says it wants to help keep the peace and to ensure that sea lanes remain free (about a third of the world’s maritime trade passes through these waters). In recent weeks the U.S. has been vocal about what it thinks about the disputes. The State Department said Beijing’s Sansha maneuvers “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.” When U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently met in Washington with his counterpart from Japan, he called again for a “code of conduct” to be set up, especially between China and ASEAN. Such a code, Washington has stated repeatedly, could govern action when an incident like the one in Scarborough Shoal occurs. Said Panetta: “The U.S. will do whatever we can to work with Japan and others to ensure that is the approach we take.” The next day the Foreign Ministry in Beijing ordered in the U.S. embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Robert Wang, and essentially told Washington to butt out.

(MORE: South China Sea Disputes: Is This How War Starts?)

From Beijing’s perspective, the U.S. is taking sides. Besides its traditional allies in the region — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines — Washington has been especially supportive of one of China’s historical rivals, Vietnam, over the South China Sea. While Washington portrays itself as an honest broker, the more cynical reckon the U.S. is adopting the thinking: the enemy of my enemy is my friend — which is how Beijing probably sees it. As Severino writes, “The Chinese fear that those who try to prevent or resent their country’s rise might use the South China Sea to contain it.”

While most East Asian governments welcome the U.S. diplomatic and military “pivot” to the region, they also don’t want China further antagonized. During the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, chair Cambodia “vetoed” the Washington-backed code of conduct for the association as a whole to deal with China over the South China Sea (as opposed to the bilateral, one-on-one negotiations Beijing wants, which give it more leverage). Many international commentators vilified Phnom Penh for kowtowing to Beijing. But if so, it has good reason: China is Cambodia’s biggest investor and donor; Phnom Penh would have miscalculated by acting against the wishes of its No. 1 patron. That’s just realpolitik. “Perfect neutrality is impossible when some [ASEAN] members are formal allies with one power, or receive large amounts of high-profile aid from another,” writes Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone, a book about the geopolitics of the region. Here are another couple of truths. First, another ASEAN chair might have acted the same too. Even though its economy is softening, China remains the main driver of economic growth in East Asia. Second, not every ASEAN member has a dog in the South China Sea fight. Why risk enraging the dragon for Vietnam and the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia and Brunei?

Amid East Asia’s island fever, there’s big and small, strong and weak, rich and poor, and enlightened and unenlightened self-interest. But not as innocent as good vs. evil.

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