Mattis barks in Beijing
US Defence Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss matters relating to the South China Sea and surrounding territories. In spite of the US seeing the South China Sea as an area of conflict, the only power sowing conflict in the region is the United States – something particularly odd as the US has no specific claims of its own in the region. The issues surrounding the South China Sea are ultimately capable of being totally resolved on a win-win model that can be achieved through multilateral dialogue on all sides while simultaneously, all parties must renounce hostilities as a means of conflict resolution.
Even with the US increasing its Naval presence in the South China Sea, south east Asia’s oldest US ally (and former colony), The Philippines recently renounced hostility over the matter in-line with President Rodrigo Duterte’s embracing of the non-aligned win-win mentality in foreign affairs. Instead of promoting hostility against Beijing, Duterte ushered in what President Xi called “a golden era” in bilateral relations. Now, China and The Philippines are set to mutually explore and exploit South China Sea resources on the win-win model.
While Vietnam has recently tended to take the place of The Philippines as the primary south east Asian state that voices frequent complaints over the South China Sea, as China recently overtook the US as the number one destination for Vietnamese goods, even Hanoi is slowly moving in a direction of dialogue rather than discord in spite of some of the worrying internal events in Vietnam in recent months, including protests over the building of special economic zones which would benefit both Vietnamese, Chinese and other partners.
American geopolitical interference
Just as The Philippines embraces an independent foreign policy under Duterte, in spite of the Philippine President having to fight a vicious opposition in order to achieve this, Vietnam is now grappling between a pragmatic outlook to commercial and foreign affairs which would push Hanoi in a direction of further cooperation, while simultaneous to this, the US continues to goad Vietnam into policies of hostility towards its Chinese neighbour. The provocative methods the US is using in Vietnam and elsewhere in the region simply belong to another century.
The key not just for Vietnam but for all nations in the South China Sea region is to realise the obvious: the United States is nowhere near the South China Sea. In spite of this, the US has taken it upon itself to align with existing Sinophobic movements in the region while far too often, the US is actively igniting and encouraging such movements to grow. If there was any role for a geographically distant superpower to play in the region, it would be to help and foster dialogue between China and her ASEAN partners over this matter – even though of course at the end of the day, China and ASEAN do not need such assistance from any non-regional power.
What the US calls “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea, are in reality, freedom to provoke patrols. It remains deeply irresponsible for the US to take it upon itself to speak for the diverse nations of the South China Sea region when each has its own unique concerns, history and approach to matters of bilateral discussions. China understands this latter point quite clearly but the US instead seeks to create a larger conflict by removing the individual agency of each nation raising issues in the region.
President Xi made China’s attitude and policy clear when he told the US Defense Secretary,
“Our stance is steadfast and clear-cut when it comes to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any inch of territory passed down from ancestors can not be lost while we seek nothing from others”.
Bearing this in mind, setting up a regional working group to foster dialogue among Asian powers is the only way to send a clear message to the US that its meddling tactics which seek to escalate the situation are of no benefit to any party to the current disputes.
A South China Sea Working Group
Both the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) claimants to the South China Sea, neutral ASEAN countries and China should work together to form a year-round working group where diplomats representing concerned regional states can gather to discuss South China Sea issues including easing hostility, rejecting non-regional mediation in the South China Sea and working to develop new and expanded existing trading ties in the region that can help to turn what the US seeks to escalate into a major conflict, into a win-win cycle of discussions and economic productivity, connectivity and harmonisation.
There are great opportunities for multiple ASEAN countries and China to intensify relations to elevate the condition of all the peoples concerned, while acknowledging that pan-Asian solutions to cooperation are both pragmatically preferable and diplomatically far more dignified than solutions which call for Asian nations to attach their concerns to the ambitions of a distant hegemon.
A permanent working group could help to facilitate permanent solutions to all lingering disputes in the region and pave the way for a wider integration of south east Asia into both the Chinese market with which ASEAN already has a free-trading agreement, while also helping to foster new opportunities for trade between ASEAN and a peaceful Korean peninsula in the format of extending One Belt–One Road to the south east by giving ASEAN states a clear and safe trade route to south Asia, western Eurasia and Europe which avoids the often tempestuous Strait of Malacca.
Learning from history that a win-win solution in the South China Sea is possible
Today, Beijing seeks to confirm its sovereignty over a Sea on its maritime border for the same purposes that in the 1920s, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk sought to confirm the same status over the Turkish Straits. In 1841, the western powers effectively bullied Turkey into signing the London Straits Convention which while confirming the Ottoman Empire’s sovereignty over the Straits, also prohibited any warships other than Ottoman ships from passing through the straits during war time. This had the desired effect of provoking further hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, all the while British and French ships had open access to all sides of the Mediterranean.
After the First World War, the victorious western powers attempted to remove Turkish sovereignty over the Turkish Straits by making them an international zone under no one state’s authority. Ataturk refused and as a result the 1936 Montreux Convention allowed for all nations with ports on the Black Sea to pass through the Turkish Straits in times of war or peace while foreign ships would be banned in war time. It is this convention which continues to govern the status of the Turkish Straits to this day.
In The South China Sea, Beijing wants essentially what Turkey wanted and got in the age of Ataturk. China has no desire to close the South China Sea to the wider world, let alone the ASEAN countries who contest sovereignty over parts of the Sea. Instead, China seeks to use its military might and traditional role as the major power of the region in order to ensure that foreign provocations from powers who do not border the Sea are not able to effectively colonise the South China Sea as the western powers attempted to colonise the Turkish Straits in the early 20th century.
The dominance of US ships in the important Strait of Malacca which links the Asia-Pacific region to the Indian Ocean, has only further served to convince China of the importance of staking its sovereign claims to the South China Sea. Thus, the dispute has nothing to do with what the US deceptively calls “freedom of navigation” but has everything to do with China making sure that in a time of war, it is not a distant foreign superpower that controls crucial sea routes which border China.
To this end, China has always been willing to cooperate with ASEAN members with claims to the Sea just as Ataturk was willing to cooperate with fellow powers with ports on the Black Sea. The recent cooperative endeavours between Philippine President Duterte and the Chinese government over mutual exploitation of South China Sea resources further confirms that China’s attitude is one that is constructive rather than threatening when it comes to working cooperatively with nearby states whose soil borders the Sea.
The only time China would ever militarily confront an ASEAN state over Sea claims is in the event of the US becoming a de-facto military protectorate of an ASEAN state. In this sense, any ASEAN member state that resorts to hiding behind US power instead of negotiating a diplomatic solution to joint South China Sea claims with Beijing, is ultimately signing its death warrant in the event of a wider Sino-US war in the region.
Just as Britain and France were all too happy to see Russia and Ottoman Turkey fight throughout the 18th and 19th centuries while they busily colonised Asia and later Africa too, the US today would be all too happy to see countries like Vietnam or The Philippines fight China with US weapons. This way, the US gets to successfully cause diplomatic and money wasting problems for China, gets to test its weapons against China’s and even if the worst happens. it will be states in south east Asia rather than US soil which will be destroyed in such a conflict.
The reality in the South China Sea is far more placid than the US wants it to be
This is why the best “offence” for ASEAN states that still have disputes with China is a defensive posture not against Beijing but against Washington’s gamesmanship in the region. If the US was removed as a factor in south east Asia, it is certain that China would work with its ASEAN partners to pursue the kind of win-win solutions that Beijing and Manila have embarked on since the arrival of President Duterte and likewise, those embarked on when Ataturk and Lenin ended centuries of mutual hostility between two great Eurasian powers. It is therefore the responsibility of ASEAN nations to maintain good trading relations with both China and the US, but when it comes to military provocations, the best ASEAN can say to the US is “thanks but no thanks”.
Thus, it becomes perfectly obvious that China is asserting its claims without ambiguity, not because it wants to threaten ASEAN states but because China does not want to see the US embark on de-facto maritime colonisation of Asian waterways.
It can therefore be surmised that the South China Sea issue is only a “South China Sea conflict” if there is an aggressive party. The clear aggressor is the United States and the sooner the ASEAN states on the South China Sea understand this, the sooner they can reach a win-win agreement with Beijing that will be good for all of Asia.