Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?


Obama in Asia

East Asia Forum was yesterday kind enough to publish a piece called ‘Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?’. I was asked to write about how the region should respond to crises like the Sino-Vietnamese standoff in the South China Sea, and the following is just my attempt at contributing something vaguely original to the discussion. I’m ready to be told it’s naive, silly or completely nuts; my only request is that if you think so, please say so!

As Bill Bishop suggested in the Sinocism Newsletter a couple of weeks back, the region at this point appears unable to impose costs on Beijing for the kind of escalatory conduct exemplified by its unilateral placement of the oil drilling rig HYSY-981 in disputed waters this month. This is definitely worth thinking long and hard about. We also need to consider the incentives that the international situation may be creating for this kind of assertiveness, and work to reduce these.

The following article’s bold proclamation about “what is needed” isn’t meant literally; although that wording suggests otherwise, i really am not claiming to know what is needed or tell the real experts that they don’t. It’s just a suggestion, a case to be made, which is based on:

  1. My reading of how China sees these issues and its strategic interests (relatively sensitive to the possibility of ASEANization of the issue, relatively insensitive to US grandstanding);
  2. What hasn’t worked to deter Beijing from assertive behaviour thus far (the US leading the criticism of China’s provocative actions and strengthening ties with China’s rival claimants); and
  3. Discussions with some friends and experts, whose feedback was vital to refining the idea (i’d name them but i’m not sure they wouldn’t prefer to remain nameless).

EAF allowed me a generous 1200-odd words, and i ought to thank the editors for their excellent job of compressing it. Nonetheless, a few other clarifications had to be left out for space reasons, so i’m adding them after the end of this post, mainly for my own benefit i imagine.

Anyway, here’s my crackpot idea, which which i put out there to be critiqued, so please don’t hold back . . .


Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?

Andrew Chubb

East Asia Forum, May 26, 2014

This month’s Sino–Vietnamese confrontation in the South China Sea, which began when China unilaterally sent a large oil drilling platform to disputed waters 220 kilometres from the Vietnamese coast, raises the question of how to deter unilateral provocations in maritime East Asia.

The US response was swift and public. The State Department promptly released a statement calling the action ‘provocative’. Speaking in Singapore, Secretary of State John Kerry called it an ‘aggressive’ act and last week Vice President Joe Bidenlabelled it ‘dangerous’. ASEAN, meanwhile, half of whose member states have maritime claims overlapping with China’s in the South China Sea, issued what some considered a timid expression of ‘serious concerns’.

This combination of stern public condemnations from the US and careful moderation from ASEAN continued the pattern of regional responses to destabilising moves by the PRC in recent years. This latest episode — one of the clearest cases of unilateral provocation by China in years — illustrates the failure of both the US and regional states to deter the PRC from engaging in potentially dangerous conduct in pursuit of its sovereign claims in maritime East Asia. It is time to consider alternative approaches.

What is needed is a regional united front. The US and its allies should coordinate their public positions on regional maritime developments with ASEAN’s, while making clear that all aspects of the ‘rebalancing’ will continue. The statement released last week by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, explicitly echoing ASEAN’s ‘serious concerns’ about the recent developments, demonstrates how this can be done, but the key will be securing the participation of the US.

Such a shift could offer a twofold strategic gain for states with an interest in a more stable South China Sea. First, even minor rhetorical shifts toward a united regional position on these disputes are probably more costly from China’s perspective than robust separate American and allied condemnations, which instead reassure Beijing by highlighting differences between the US and the rest of the region. Second, it could incentivise ASEAN to adopt stronger public responses to warn China of the strategic consequences of its actions.

Beijing takes ASEAN’s system of subtle signals seriously. ASEAN’s responses to regional developments are often derided as meek and even irrelevant, but this view overlooks the non-confrontational rebukes that the group already sends Beijing. The most recent example is the statement issued by the ASEAN foreign ministers in Myanmar on 10 May in response to the Sino–Vietnamese confrontation, which expressed ‘serious concerns over the on-going developments in the South China Sea, which have increased tensions in the area’. As Carlyle Thayer has suggested, this represented a subtle criticism of China and implicit support for Vietnam. More importantly, as a statement at the ministers’ level, it left room for further strengthening of this position, thus delivering an additional warning to China.

That the events in the South China Sea were on ASEAN’s agenda at all is a defiance of Beijing’s constantly reiterated demand that the South China Sea issue not be ‘internationalised’. China’s acute sensitivity to the possibility of increased ASEAN involvement was clearly shown in a statement released the same day by its foreign ministry, reminding ASEAN that ‘the issue of the South China Sea is not one between China and ASEAN’.

This brisk and testy response illustrates the extent to which China’s strategy hinges on preventing regional unity on maritime matters. With this in mind, strong public international support for the subtle positions taken by ASEAN begins to look less like appeasement and more like a way to impose strategic costs on Beijing for conduct that threatens regional stability.

A regional united front would not require acquiescence to aggression, nor would it require the US to disown any past or future statements of reassurance to its allies, much less its strategic ‘rebalancing’. It would, however, mean refraining from publicly condemning assertive actions in stronger terms than ASEAN is willing to adopt.

The Chinese Communist Party’s suspicious view of US intentions leads it to expect US public statements that challenge its interests and undermine its positions. It has learned to turn this to its advantage, feeding a domestic narrative of encirclement and buttressing its claim that the US approach reflects outdated Cold War thinking that runs counter to what the region wants.

But what caught Beijing off-guard when then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared the United States’ national interest in the South China Sea in 2010 was not simply Clinton’s high-profile statement itself but the affinity implied by its delivery at the ASEAN Regional Forum, followed by intense discussion of the issue reportedly involving 12 participants.

In contrast, when the US or its allies’ positions clearly go beyond ASEAN’s moderate positions, the PRC is reassured that its fears of regional strategic isolation remain safely over the horizon. This encourages Beijing to believe that isolation can be avoided, even if it continues with a forceful approach to defending and advancing its claims in the disputed waters.

Embracing the ‘ASEAN way’ of cautious, consensus-based diplomacy and refraining from directly apportioning blame for regional confrontations in public statements is unlikely to be a popular idea in some US-allied capitals. But there is reason to believe that adopting such an approach could help spur ASEAN to take stronger public positions against future destabilising behaviour — at least where China is the perpetrator.

While some member states see no interest in getting involved with the South China Sea issue, the balance of consensus within the group appears to be shifting.

Indonesia and Malaysia, two influential ASEAN member states, have shown heightened concerns about China’s maritime policies over the past few months, the former through a series of official public comments, the latter through concrete defence initiatives. The discussion of the issue at this month’s ASEAN Summit hosted in Naypyitaw suggested that Myanmar, the once-reliable Chinese ally, is now happy to see ASEAN respond to PRC provocations. Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien-loong has made clear his belief in ASEAN’s involvement in the issue, while Thailand, wracked by internal chaos, is likely to accede to the majority view.

The prospect of further subtle shifts in the group’s collective stance on the South China Sea issue may make this a particularly opportune time for the US to line up behind ASEAN’s statements, helping to amplify their significance as a regional consensus.

The contrast between the US and ASEAN positions is exactly what has allowed China to believe it can get away with unilateral provocations without suffering serious costs. Creating a regional united front may offer a way for the region as a whole to impose more-effective costs on Beijing. Moreover, if it fails, it would be easily reversible. Just as ASEAN states like Vietnam and the Philippines are free to take more or less strident positions on regional affairs, Washington and its allies could depart from the regional consensus if they deemed it necessary.

This suggestion might strike many as capitulationist at first glance, but this is misguided. A regional united-front approach would leverage the basic common interest that almost all regional states share in stability and avoid coercive measures in maritime disputes. In short, the region’s much-maligned ‘lowest common denominator’ response may offer one way to create an effective deterrent against further dangerous provocations.


Additional points/clarifications (not part of EAF article)

Consensus responses would help ensure criticisms of China’s behaviour are fairer, and thus more powerful. Some of the US’s past public criticisms of China have been directed at unilateral provocations, such as the announcement of a PRC Air Defense Identification Zone overlapping those of other countries in the East China Sea, while others were ostensibly Chinese countermeasures following moves by its rival claimants, such as the Scarborough Shoal standoff and the establishment of “Sansha City” and a new military garrison in 2012. Many other instances of Chinese maritime assertiveness, such China’s disruption of Filipino and Vietnamese energy surveys in 2011, and its attempt to intercept a ship carrying construction materials to reinforce a crumbling Philippines outpost in the Spratly Islands, fall into the murky grey areas in between provocation and response. The US’s failure to distinguish between clear instances of Chinese aggression and incidents that involve various shades of grey is understandable, given the its keenness to reassure the region of its strategic commitment, but it detracts from the moral force of its criticisms.

The direct costs that a regional united front would impose on Beijing are basically in the realm of face, but far from being irrelevant, this could help alter the CCP’s view of its regional strategic situation in ways that reduce the incentives for aggression. As noted in the piece, the current US approach of strong public admonishments of Beijing is counterproductive because it reassures Beijing that there is daylight between what it sees as the US’s unjustified anti-China stances, and those of the rest of the region. China expects to be attacked by the US; that actually gives the CCP face, certainly with its domestic audience, and it probably feels that it gains face abroad too. By leading the criticism, the US also risks overshadowing or obscuring the subtle public punishments that ASEAN already imposes on China. Most importantly, by displaying unity and raising face costs on the CCP together, the region may effectively be able alter China’s assessment of the region’s “strategic configuration of power”, or shi 势, which China currently seems to view as dominated by the desire of Asian countries to stay on the board the Chinese economic “fast train”, as well as a blossoming Sino-Russian partnership. A logical conclusion of this view is that maritime crises — even those provoked by blatantly aggressive Chinese moves — can have a “soft landing” and/or not affect the underlying regional dynamics. A regional united front offers one way to try to change that perception.

It would require only minimal, and informal coordination mechanisms. At least to begin with, the aim should merely be creating an understanding that public positions will be harmonized, and ASEAN’s statements will gain additional support. Moving forward, there are numerous existing channels that could be leveraged for further coordination going forward, with many countries including Australia and the US appointing resident ambassadors to ASEAN in Jakarta. There are also ASEAN missions around the world, and the long-established ASEAN Dialogue Partner mechanisms. Finally, there are the 10 individual ASEAN member states’ embassies. But above all, the Australian DFAT statement of support for the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ statement in Naypyitaw shows how little would be needed initially to get the idea off the ground.

It could quite conceivably lead to a supra-regional united front with the possibility of further enhancing the scope of support for ASEAN’s statements. With the US behind ASEAN’s positions, it may be possible to build even more expressions of support from states that perceive an interest in stability in the South China Sea, starting with the US’s treaty allies, trading states from around the Asia-Pacific region, and ASEAN’s other dialogue partners.

It’s a shift in public communications strategy, not a shift in strategic or military posture. Part of the logic is about making clear to China the level of regional support for the “pivot”. In all practical senses — military presence, assistance, training, information sharing, etc. — the “pivot” could continue. Those countries that have the strongest interest in hedging against an assertive China, including Australia, should continue to offer private support to each other and those on the receiving end of China’s encroachments, while making clear that such one-to-one support is conditional on those rival claimants’ own good conduct (ie. not provoking incidents with China). Of course, the rhetorical shift would need to be properly explained, making crystal clear that it is designed to complement rather than back away from the “rebalance”. It might be presented as something along the lines of a new, more collaborative US regional diplomatic strategy.

In summary, this is obviously a tough idea to sell at a time when China appears to be making a concerted effort to undermine the US’s credibility as a regional security guarantor. To the many people who think only stronger pushback can safeguard US credibility, it will appear not just silly but dangerous. But i’d urge those holding such views to engage with the counterintuitive underlying point, namely that the US may be able to help bring about a stronger regional pushback against escalatory behaviour by harmonizing its rhetoric with ASEAN’s more moderate positions. Would the US refraining from direct public condemnation of individual countries for specific maritime incidents really render it impossible for the US to make clear that its “rebalancing” is continuing? I see no reason why that should be the case, but if you disagree please let me know what you think and why.


4 Comments on “Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?”

  1. Nga says:

    I’m Vietnamese and this is an awesome article.

  2. Nga says:

    A very interesting perspective. would you mind if I translate this article into Vietnamese?

  3. […] on the part of the PRC. And these are precisely the kinds of escalatory Chinese actions that the region as a whole has the greatest common interest in […]

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