Aleksius Jemadu: China, Asean Are Strategically Interdependent
China’s relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a regional entity has never been stable. It is like the two lovers who have to carefully navigate through their times of intimacy and trouble. While in terms of mutual trade and investment they are indispensable to one another and therefore seek to sustain regional stability, the situation is much more complicated when it comes to issues like territorial conflict and its resolution in the South China Sea.
Recently China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that Beijing was “extremely concerned” with the fact that the issue of territorial conflict in the South China Sea was addressed at all during the Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur.
There are at least three reasons why China has come up with such objection.
First, China has always rejected the idea that it has to deal with Asean in resolving the territorial conflict in the South China Sea despite the fact that four Asean members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — are claimants to the disputed territory. China insists that it has no conflict with Asean as a whole and therefore prefers to have one-on-one dialogues with the claimants.
Second, the course of events in the South China Sea gives us a strong impression that Beijing has reached a point of no return in building physical infrastructures on disputed islands in the belief that such aggressive maneuvers will ultimately compel all those who oppose China’s territorial claims to accept its de facto control over disputed areas.
Based on this policy, China has continued to make rapid progress in building a military airstrip in the Spratly Islands. At the end of the day, Beijing seems to tacitly assume that any international negotiations to resolve the territorial conflict in the South China Sea will have to take into account the status quo, including its territorial control.
Third, Beijing is very much aware of the fact that in dealing with other territorial claimants, it has to rely on its own capability while its opponents — like the Philippines and Vietnam — have the tendency to use the support of the United States and Japan, whose strategic aims in the South China Sea are to prevent any kind of unilateral domination over one of the most important global passages for maritime trade.
As a matter of fact, when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington recently he used the opportunity to reaffirm his nation’s traditional alliance with the United States, by responding to what he called Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China and East China seas.
It is now clear that as far as Asean’s relationship with China is concerned this regional entity has to reconcile two important strategic objectives which will ultimately affect the future prospect of its regional integration.
On the one hand, Asean has to maintain unity among its members in order to maintain their enthusiasm for the implementation of the Asean Economic Community. On the other hand, without China’s economic support such regional integration might not accomplish much.
Asean simply cannot deny the fact that China is too important to be ignored — as a huge market and an abundant source of investment.
Although the reconciliation of the two strategic objectives is not going to be easy, Asean should find ways how to proceed further with its plan of promoting the acceptance of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
Beijing has good reasons to maintain its good relationship with Asean, whose moderate and peace-oriented policies are more acceptable in China’s eyes than a combative and confrontational approach led by Japan and the United States.
On top of that, China needs Asean to strengthen its legitimacy and acceptability as a continental leader in Asia. In the context of its historical and psychological competition with Japan, China always looks at Asean as a close friend, considering that in the past both were victims of Japan’s militarization and occupation before and during World War II.
As long as both Asean and China are aware of their strategic interdependence, it should be possible to continue with the series of talks related to the establishment of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
Any kind of unilateral effort to transform this territorial dispute into a show of power will only lead to unnecessary and dangerous tensions which will ultimately destroy the current momentum of economic growth in the region.
Aleksius Jemadu is dean of the School of Government and Global Affairs at Pelita Harapan University (UPH) in Karawaci.
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Source: The Jakarta Globe