Beijing has launched a charm offensive to shore up its position in the South China Sea ahead of a key international court decision widely expected to rule against its claims to the disputed waters.
Over the past two weeks, China has seen successes in courting India, Russia, Pakistan, Belarus, Laos — and even Brunei, one of six claimants to areas of the South China Sea. Most have found common ground with Beijing in its opposition to “internationalizing” the South China Sea issue.
The case brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague by the Philippines contests the legality of Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim to most of the South China Sea. China has refused to participate in the case and has vowed to ignore the ruling, which may come later this month or in early June.
A raft of statements urging China to adhere to the ruling — including one by Britain last month — and a fierce lobbying campaign in the region by the United States, have likely prompted the recent flurry of moves by Beijing.
U.S. defense chief Ash Carter announced last month that American troops and military equipment will be sent on regular rotations to the Philippines and that the two countries have started joint patrols in the South China Sea.
The Chinese push appeared to have also began in earnest last month at an annual trilateral meeting of the foreign ministers from India, Russia and China, where the grouping quietly issued a statement addressing the South China Sea for the first time.
That joint communique noted the three nations’ commitment to settling disputes “through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned” and was almost verbatim to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s official stance on the issue.
Just a few days later, the ministry announced an agreement with Laos, Brunei and Cambodia, which later denied such a consensus had been reached, that the South China Sea dispute should not affect relations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
And in a speech Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a proposal to “explore a new approach to regional security” in Southeast Asia, one that will unite the region and supersede what he called “outdated thinking” surrounding Asia’s U.S.-led alliance system.
The aggressive campaign ahead of the PCA ruling also saw China’s announcement of a new five-year plan for international cooperation in the South China Sea and neighboring waters, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.
This plan will “focus on partnerships between China and ASEAN and in East Asia,” the report said, citing Chen Yue, deputy director of the State Oceanic Administration’s international cooperation department. No specifics of the plan were given.
“Essentially, Beijing is looking at ways to peel away at any unity within ASEAN on the South China Sea issue, through leveraging its relationships with certain countries there such as Laos, Cambodia and Brunei,” J. Berkshire Miller, a fellow for the East Asia program at the New York-based EastWest Institute, said in an email.
“They want to pre-empt the PCA ruling and erode its legitimacy through the support of other states in the region and internationally.”
This, however, could backfire on Beijing.
“The problem with China’s lobbying results, however, is that these are mostly examples of Chinese client states or close partners — so the legitimacy of such a bloc is inherently dubious,” Miller added.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.