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 . . .
By all accounts Philippines President Benigno Aquino III’s visit to China from August 30 to September 3 was a roaring success. More than 300 businesspeople and 13 cabinet members went along with the President, and they apparently got what they wanted and more: $1.3 billion in guaranteed Chinese investment in the year ahead, and up to $14 billion over the next five years.
The South China Sea front was relatively quiet, in keeping with the official rhetoric in the lead-up to the trip (Google news finds 2,375 stories on the topic of , namely that the dispute would not be allowed to affect economic cooperation.
However, on the day the President left with billions in new investments secured, the Chinese press pounced on the Phillipines military’s announcement* of the upcoming purchase of another second-hand US warship: Just as Aquino concludes China visit, Philippines announces purchase of another warship for the South China Sea, shrieked headlines across the country, from Chongqing to Fujian and seemingly everywhere in between.
After such a high-profile state visit accompanied by the usual heavy official media coverage, with China’s virtuous international kindness being extolled, this was widely seen as yet another serious loss of face for the Chinese government. The story provoked more than 22,000 responses on Sohu, one of China’s main web portals. Here’s a selection of the top comments:
Using China’s money to buy American warships to interfere with China. That’s really lofty!
This is a good model of “shelving disputes and developing jointly”!
China and the Philippines are friendly, increase investment!???
America’s running dog, this is exactly the American way.
Shelve differences, jointly develop, yes! yes! yes! yes! yes! yes!
After I finished reading this article I thought of that picture of Hu [Jintao] clinking glasses with Aquino and couldn’t help but admire the rulers’ “IQ” [. . .] if people are good they get taken for a ride, if a horse is good they get ridden – this idea was completely proven long ago, did you really not know?! How long are you going to make the Chinese people lose face for? Are you alright? If not, get someone else in quick~~
It’s a pity the Sohu thread doesn’t include information about how many people recommended each post. More than 22,000 individually written comments would suggest, at a guess, at least 100,000 participants in the discussion, a pretty big number even by Chinese standards.
The discussion on Phoenix Online attracted 48,072 participants and 219 comments. The top responses once again suggest that for a great many Chinese people this was a massive loss of face:
When I saw this headline I just laughed! [4109 recommends]
Remember Chairman Mao, he really was a strategist and statesman! 
The Filipino people are warmly congratulating their President on his consummate successful in his visit to China! 
Don’t abuse others! We always knew they were shameless, we just thought we were too cool, insisted on giving them face and money and now they’re buying weapons to fight us with – we’re a great big international joke! 
We should bear in mind the ancient teaching: a bowl of rice nourishes a saviour, a ton of rice nourishes an enemy. 
It’s hard to disagree – Hu does indeed seem to have been slapped with a wet trout. But the “netizens” don’t seem to realize that people around the world pay almost no attention; what seems to them to be a loss of face for the Chinese nation in front of the world is far, far more of a loss of face for the Chinese Communist Party in front of the Chinese nation.
* Philippines military chief Eduardo Oban announced that he expected to buy a second Hamilton-class cutter from the US to help safeguard the country’s South China Sea interests. AFP appeared to see nothing inflammatory or contradictory about this:
MANILA — The Philippines hopes a territorial dispute over the South China Sea will ease after President Benigno Aquino’s trip to China, the nation’s military chief said Saturday.
But Manila will continue to build its naval patrol capability, General Eduardo Oban said, adding that he expects the Philippine navy to acquire a second Hamilton-class cutter from the United States next year.