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 . . .
There was a post here last year about the KD Pari, a Malaysian Navy fast attack craft that sort-of-sank while allegedly chasing a Chinese ship near Swallow Reef. It still continues to attract traffic from the search engines, which hints at a general dearth of information on the Malaysian dimension to the South China Sea disputes.
Malaysia usually gets little noticed in the Chinese media too, when it comes to the South China Sea issue, but that changed with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Amin’s comment on August 12 that Southeast Asian states should sort out their South China Sea claims before negotiating with China. At a press conference right after his meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi (who wasn’t in attendance), Anifah said:
There are overlapping claims by member countries. Let us discuss these among ASEAN countries first before we talk to China . . . We can only achieve this objective in the South China Sea if all parties agree. Then China can appreciate this and realise it is ASEAN’s wish.
Although Malaysia’s official Bernama news agency did not report these comments, they were still picked up, translated and introduced into the Chinese media by the Huanqiu Shibao. This led in turn to the following report from Yunnan TV. As the summary translation indicates, it struck an indignant tone that painted Malaysia as yet another addition to the list of hostile anti-China forces.
Summary translation follows after the jump…
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.
Early last month, President Aquino returned from his state visit to China with a swag of new Chinese investment deals and promptly set about consolidating the Philippines’ presence in the South China Sea with a new radar station and patrol boats. (Regarding the reaction in China’s media and internet, see here.)
Late last month the Philippines followed up by staging a couple of serious diplomatic moves. The first of these was arranging a meeting in Manila of legal experts from ASEAN countries to discuss a proposal to clearly demarcate what areas are in dispute and what aren’t. From China’s perspective, this meant a proposal to clearly divide the South China Sea among ASEAN countries, in addition to forming a united front against China.*
The AFP called it the Philippines’ “plan to blunt China’s claims” (“to blunt China” in the headline).
MANILA — The Philippines on Thursday sought backing from its Southeast Asian neighbours for its plan to blunt China’s claims over disputed areas of the South China Sea and ease tensions.
Vice President Jejomar Binay made the appeal at a meeting of maritime law experts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where he alleged foreign intrusions continued in Philippine seawaters.
The meeting did rate a mention on the ASEAN calendar so it was to some extent officially endorsed, but it was buried among dozens of other events and there was no ASEAN news announcement. The VOA loved it (though fairly of course). But no-one seems to have considered it a big deal besides the Philippines and the Western media. Oh, yes, and the Chinese media. . .
The Global Times reported the AFP story the following day, probably as quickly as a translation of a foreign news story could pass the censors, and it quickly became the lead international story on the radio news updates from CNR’s huanqiu zixun and was reprinted on websites and in newspapers around the country.
The 56,000-strong comments thread in response to the GT story on Phoenix was, as might be expected, entertainingly sardonic:
Summon the President and give him some more money. [12,083]
Where are our forceful evict-and-demolish teams [qiang chai bu, gangs of thugs hired by property developers]? This is their chance to repay the country!!!!!!! 
Where have China’s “urban management” officers [the widely-feared chengguan], police†, officials, law enforcement agencies gone? 
Why don’t we study Russia? Use airplanes and big artillery to drive away the occupiers 
Tell him off. Tell him off fiercely. 
When it comes to issues of national territory, you want to use warnings, not protests. And clearly explain that there will only be one warning. 
Top comments on Sina, meanwhile, referenced the “need” for a Mao Zedong, and the UK’s example in the 1982 Falklands War.
Next, Aquino travelled to Tokyo and put out a joint communique with Japan’s PM Yoshihiko Noda, announcing that relations had moved from friendship to “strategic partnership”, with extra defence collaboration on “regional and global issues of mutual concern and interest”. It was then that Long Tao busted out with his latest hit Global Times article calling for war in the South China Sea.
Immediately afterwards, a meeting was held between Japanese defence officials and representatives from ASEAN. Once again, it may have been overplayed by the media and the host nation, but it was notable for Japanese Vice Minister of Defense Kimito Nakae’s comment that the Japan-ASEAN relationship had “matured from dialogues to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” regarding regional security issues. The People’s Daily’s Tokyo Bureau picked up on this very quickly, and on September 28 major Chinese media ran the story that Vice Minister Kimito Nakae had claimed the meeting of Japanese and ASEAN defence officials had reached a consensus on increased Japanese participation in the South China Sea and had specifically talked about measures to deal with China’s “increasingly energetic activities”. Somehow, there were only 3 comments on Phoenix and 2 on NetEase – which can only mean two things: either comments were deliberately switched off, or no-one on China’s most popular websites was the slightest bit interested in a story titled “Japan and ASEAN reach agreement to strengthen cooperation in the South China Sea”….
* Presumably no “experts” from China were invited to the “ASEAN Maritime Legal Experts’ Meeting”. China opposes multilateral negotiations and doesn’t want to talk about sovereignty because as far as it is concerned nothing is in dispute because everything belongs to it. But China likes to keep things ambiguous, if not for cultural reasons (as Kissinger would claim), then at least because time is on its side. If that wasn’t the case, it would at the very least clarify the exact course of the 9-dashed line.
† Very surprising to see this escape the censors and become one of the top comments.