Words will never hurt China

Just when the South China Sea dispute needed simplifying, here comes the Russian military. Source: Wikimedia

While China’s representatives at the Asean summits in Laos were clearly relieved that they had again avoided a united front over the South China Sea dispute, they also know their moral authority to expand could do with shoring up.

The state-controlled Global Times described the Lao summits as a diplomatic win for China while a diplomat said that “the page had been turned over” regarding the July 12 ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague that dismissed China’s claims in the South China Sea.

After the East Asia Summit, that was tagged on to the Asean conferences in Vientiane, Beijing’s deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin sounded relieved that no one had raised the ruling.

Few observers will be surprised that Asean has passed up an open goal against China. It is an uninspiring organisation.

The full title of one of the many summits was “28th Asean Summit (Plenary)”. As if it was not enough to use a word like “plenary” that few people could define but to put it in brackets is almost guaranteed to undermine any interest in an event before it starts.

Sometimes it appears that Asean deliberately opts for the tedious and the region’s supine media also fails to inject much life into the gatherings.

The most effective opposition to Chinese suzerainty over the South China Sea this year has come from The Hague, the US and Japan, while Asean trips over itself if it glances in Beijing’s direction. China’s dominance in Cambodia is most marked and it has used its influence in Phnom Penh well to derail any united Asean position on the resource-rich sea on several occasions.

But Liu conceded that the maritime dispute, which was seldom mentioned in previous summits, had become a major topic in Vientiane.

While analysts can talk about Beijing feeling the diplomatic heat, the facts on the water contradict this.

As concrete runways and air-defence batteries replace more and more coral reefs, it becomes increasingly difficult to see anyone convincing the Chinese to retreat.

Moscow and Beijing are conducting joint naval drills until September 19 in the South China Sea.

The drills are taking place off Guangdong Province, well clear of China’s contentious nine-dash line, which extends to almost the whole sea.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who should really be an irrelevance to the dispute, gave his backing to Beijing’s position earlier this month at the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

The naval drills featured ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, marine corps and amphibious armoured equipment, Chinese naval representative Liang Yang announced.

Exercises would include island-seizing drills, Liang added, something that will go down poorly in Manila and Hanoi.

The China-Russia naval exercises have been conducted on four previous occasions.

Last year, exercises took place in the Mediterranean and Sea of Japan, which will have concentrated minds in Tokyo.

“I agree that Beijing scored a small victory in avoiding a rebuke by the summit delegates as a whole,” argues Jay Batongbacal, a legal academic at the University of the Philippines. “But Asean-China relations turning a new page does not necessarily mean that things will turn out the way China expects.”

Analysts noted that Asean’s leaders conducted lengthy discussions on the dispute in Vientiane and issued veiled criticism of China in a joint statement. China could only “ease tensions superficially but not necessarily narrow the differences between disputing states”, Batongbacal opined.

“The US and Japanese statements reflect Asean sentiments and act as surrogate voices to their fundamental positions,” he added.

Cambodia and Laos rely too heavily on Chinese investment to allow the bloc to reprimand China while other Asean members with no direct interest in the sea will not want to anger Beijing.

Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was at the event but was always unlikely to use her celebrity status to attack Beijing over the South China Sea. Just last month she was in Beijing to beg its leaders to exert pressure on ethnic Chinese rebel armies battling the Burmese military along the shared border to attend her much-anticipated Panglong peace conference in Nay Pyi Taw on August 31.

From the Khmer Rouge to narco-states along its border with Myanmar, Beijing’s Communist leadership is not squeamish about the company it keeps.

Bonnie Glaser of Washington DC’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies said that although China would like The Hague tribunal ruling to be forgotten, it would remain a historic decision that would shape international relations in the future.

“Just because the ruling wasn’t mentioned in the Asean joint statement doesn’t mean that the members are willing to ignore it,” she explained.

While the fine words coming out of Manila, Hanoi, Tokyo and Washington may make Beijing defensive and secretive, the concrete network of military installations it is building throughout the South China Sea speak louder. While international rulings and diplomatic pressure will probably prevent the Chinese opening tourist resorts in the region, it will take far more decisive action to drive China’s navy from the Philippine and Vietnamese coastlines.