Below is a piece published at The Diplomat, running through what the “status quo” is in the South China Sea, and the difficulties encountered in trying to define it. Aside from identifying some key metrics of the current situation in the disputed area, the aim was generate some debate, or at least second thoughts, about the usefulness of the “status quo” as a normative standard. The concept has proved useful in diplomacy over Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere, and (arguably) in international relations theory. But given the complex, watery nature of the South China Sea dispute, i argue it’s not likely to help in establishing the kind of clear-cut, universally recognized standards the region needs to forestall escalation there.
The term’s broad-brush vagueness – it simply means “the existing situation” – may make it appealing for practitioners of diplomacy, but the lack of clarity limits its usefulness as an analytic tool. More troublingly, being such an all-encompassing term, its use as a normative standard is inevitably selective, resulting in inconsistencies that risk breeding misunderstanding and mistrust. Unless used with care and nuance, it is a term that is more likely to undermine than underpin a “rules-based order” in maritime Asia.
The U.S. position on the East and South China Sea disputes, as Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other officials have frequently reiterated in recent months, is that it opposes changes to the status quo made through force or coercion. Senior U.S. military and civilian officials have used this standard formulation frequently since mid-2013, most prominently in relation to the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and its well-publicized island-construction project in the South China Sea.
Claimants in the disputed seas have also embraced the idea of defending the status quo from Chinese advances. The leaders of Japan and the Philippines on June 4 affirmed their opposition to “unilateral attempts to changes the status quo.” Vietnam maintains a slightly subtler position that stops short of outright opposition, as typified by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s call for countries to refrain from “actions that would complicate the situation and change the status quo of rocks and shoals.”
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:
- 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);
- 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
- 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 . . .
While Obama’s every move prompts celebrity coverage from Australia’s media, it’s his announcement of increased US troop numbers that has captured attention in China.
The front page of the Global Times today is dominated by the headline, ‘Australia divided over American troops’, underneath which appears a Xinhua story about Australia’s “debate” over the American military increase. (I put debate in quotes because there has actually been remarkably little debate.)
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin has labelled the plan “inappropriate”, and all the major news portals – Sina, NetEase, Sohu, Phoenix and Tencent – are running this announcement prominently on their front pages. So far the volume of comments has not been huge, but aside from the obligatory condemning of the hapless Foreign Ministry spokesman, it seems to be bringing out China’s liberals, a group, or, more accurately, a strain of opinion, whose existence sometimes gets called into question when it comes to mass internet discussions.Normally such views are either “harmonized” by the censors or simply outnumbered and shouted down.
But here they are, these liberal views, dominating the comments on NetEase’s lead report, ‘China says US’s troop deployment in Australia inappropriate’. Or so it would appear…i should note that they are often accused of being paid by the US government, just as anyone who expresses agreement with or approval of the Chinese government tends to be denounced as a “fifty-center“.
The discussion is starting to take off (so far 1918 comments and 36,637 participants – the latter figure has increased by about 11,000 in the last couple of hours):
[問水 (“Ask Water”) – Guangzhou, Guangdong]: The United States, the hope of humanity! [5073 recommends]
In reply to “Ask Water” above – [铲除五1毛与美1狗 (“Eliminate fifty-centers and American dogs”) – Jinan, Shandong]: Hope is not blind worship. There must be clear acknowledgement of what race of person one is, and what races and suited to which systems. Stop dreaming, child
In reply to “Eliminate fifty-centers and American dogs” – [无毛的野爹 (“Hairless (/no-Mao) wild dad”) – Tangshan, Hebei]: At least he still has dreams. As for you, go back to your basket and gnaw on a bone. 
[仇日者 (“Japan hater“) – Shenzhen, Guangdong]: The point is, what use is saying something is inappropriate??? Haha. It’s like a burly thug has parked his car so that it’s blocking the gate to your house. You hide, quivering, inside your house, saying “You’re blocking the driveway, it’s not appropriate” – is that any use??? If you had the capability, you’d go out and turn the car over! [3328 recommends]
In reply to “Eliminate fifty-centers and American dogs” – [shen0123 – Asia-Pacific region]: We should say that some races are suited to being people, and some races are suited to being swine. 
. . .
[Liyulongmen – Beijing]: “Inappropriate”?? This is called interference in the US and Australia’s internal affairs. The Heavenly Kingdom would dispatch troops if it had the capability 
In an illustration of how trends in public opinion shouldn’t automatically be seen as representing social groups (e.g. “pro-US liberals”), the US-Australia military announcement has also prompted expressions of a very mainstream envy of the American state’s strong pursuit of its own national interest, in contrast with the Chinese state’s constant stream of “protests”. This is apparent in the discussion on Phoenix’s current lead story, ‘Obama announces increase in US forces in Australia from next year’ so far has 361 comments and 17,385 participants:
[陈东czy – Datong, Shanxi]: Obama is a good official. He does practical things for the American people. I support. [4698 recommends]
[xangqumeiguo – Hubei]: I originally thought it was 2.5 million troops, not just 250, imperialism is a paper tiger. 
In reply to “陈东czy” above [猪嗷 (“Sound of pigs”) – Shenzhen, Guangdong]: I can honestly tell you: 250 is enough! 
In reply to “陈东czy” above [XBQ2010 – Harbin, Heilongjiang]: A good official??? The people are national “occupy” movements. Haven’t you seen the news? Idiot. 
The overwhelming popularity of the top comment and the generally envious tone of many others not translated here seems to express a kind of longing for unity between the state’s interests and the people’s interests on behalf of the Chinese cyber-masses – perhaps a particularly Chinese-Communist-Confucian preoccupation. Only the last commenter (XBQ2010) made any consideration the convulsions of competing interests, mostly vested, often corrupt, and decidedly elite, underlying the American system.
The CCP has done great things for the Chinese people over the past 70-odd years, all the while emphasising that it has always fully represents the interests of the broad masses. Back in the mid-20th century the idea that politics could and should be that way – with the powerful and powerless united in purpose – was relatively compatible with the existing Confucian-imperial ideal of “great community” (da tong). But in the internet era, with great volumes of information making a myriad of fundamental conflicts of interest clear on a daily basis, this desire for a sense of unity between weak and strong, many and few, is proving impossible to satisfy.
The upcoming East Asia Summit, the first to include America and Russia, is sure to involve some interesting South Sea diplomacy.
Ahead of the meeting, the Philippines has in the past few weeks been trying to organize a united ASEAN front based on demarcation of disputed and non-disputed sections of the South China Sea – known as the “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFFC)” proposal. China of course opposes this, and a Xinhua article yesterday claimed that it was little more than an attempt to help the US with its “return to Asia” strategy.
The Philippines’ efforts seemed at one point to have at least some momentum when, late last month, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang endorsed the ZoPFFC proposal. However, the idea seems to have decisively hit the wall in recent days, with the Malaysian Foreign Minister declaring that his country didn’t support the idea of raising the South China Sea issue at the EAS:
China is showing a positive step by organizing seminars and workshops . . . To introduce another forum will complicate the matter further.
Cambodia’s FM actually laughed when asked about the idea: “The problem is how to avoid . . . duplication,” he said, perhaps referring to each claimant state’s bilateral negotiations with China.
But a US presidential aide indicated today that Barack Obama will raise the issue at the EAS anyway. The Global Times has been swift in reporting the spokesman’s comments, under one of its inimitable headlines: ‘America plans to force itself into the South China Sea dispute, claims the issue is appropriate for the EAS’.
The Sixth East Asia Summit, aimed at pushing forward the process of East Asian integration and community, will begin in Bali on November 19. Yet the US, despite not being a relevant party to the South China Sea issue, and making its first appearance at the EAS, has declared that it wants to “discuss the South China Sea” at the summit.
However, the only major news website that has the story anywhere on its front page is Sina, which is running a toned-down CNS report, buried among other small headlines, rather than the GT’s fury-laced version, and this hasn’t attracted a great deal of attention so far (only 1,200 or so participants in the discussion, most comments voicing standard denunciations of American temerity). One particularly interesting reader comment, however, is to be found on the Chinese-language Wall Street Journal’s report, titled ‘China opposes discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS’:
What opposing discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS means is: “you can occupy the islands, but you can’t say so publicly”. China is only after face, not territory!
Although China definitely is after the territory, this comment is actually very incisive. The reality is that China currently occupies very little in the South China Sea – it has the Paracel Islands, but none of the genuine islands among the Spratlys – and as a result the CCP government loses face with the Chinese public every time the issue arises.
Update 1: Phoenix has just now posted the CNS report [zh] on the Obama staffer’s comments, if it provokes comment i will add some.
Update 2: QQ is running a report that ‘Japanese media claim US and ASEAN will issue joint statement on South China Sea’ [zh]. The report is from the Yoimuri Shimbun.