Under China’s Shadow

The new “cold war” in the far east, in reaction to China’s economic power and military build-up, is set to cause the United States to strengthen its military presence in the region. There is speculation that Britain’s new aircraft carrier HMS Elizabeth is going to be permanently based in the far east. It certainly will make its maiden voyage through the South China Sea. But what of the nations in the SE Asian area?

Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines certainly reject China’s claims to all of the South China Sea. Indeed, the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague sided with the Philippines and rejected China’s “nine-dash line” maritime claims. However, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries as a block are unlikely to side with the United States. Trade with China now exceeds that of the EU in the ASEAN region and the countries look to China to revitalize their economies especially in the wake of the fallout from covid-19.

While China seeks to resolve disputes through its Code of Conduct with ASEAN, this document suffers limitations. Its geographical scope remains undefined. Does it include all of the South China Sea or only parts of it?

Second, its legal status has not been defined. Unless it is binding it will be ineffective.

Third, the applicability of international norms remains doubtful. As mentioned, China has ignored the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s Ruling. The Code of Conduct needs an effective monitoring mechanism for enforcing international law and norms. China must not seek to impose its will unjustly on others. It has fired on Vietnamese fishing vessels and in the past, China has asked Vietnam to stop oil drilling with a Spanish company and threatened war if the Philippines tried to enforce the Court of Arbitration ruling or drilled oil in the disputed areas. Indeed, China seeks to exclude foreign oil companies from the South China Sea.

Fourth, there is no agreement on the dispute mechanism.

Lastly, on the rights of third parties there are huge differences. The South China Sea is a major shipping route. While China rejects any actions of the United States as it has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, clearly along with Japan, Australia, and other international states, it has an interest in protecting freedom of navigation where one-third of global shipping passes each year. The United States navy continues to hold drills in the South China Sea.

Can the nations of South East Asia continue to rely on American power with the ever-growing risk of a clash resulting in all out conflict? At the end of last year, a flotilla of as many as 63 Chinese fishing boats, four Chinese coast guard vessels and a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel sailed into the area of the Natunas (Indonesia’s northern most islands), causing a tense confrontation on the water and a furious exchange between Jakarta and Beijing. Indonesia deployed jets and several navy ships to ensure the Chinese withdrawal.

Indonesia along with the rest of ASEAN needs to create a settlement of South China Sea disputes which is based on international law which with the backing of the international community China must adhere to.







* Ian Martin lives in Thailand. He is a lifelong Liberal and a member of the Liberal Democrat Overseas executive.

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  • richard underhill. 21st Aug '20 - 6:53pm

    Ian Martin | Fri 21st August 2020 – 5:31 pm
    China’s attitude to international agreement/s and/or regulation/s is very dispapointing.

    We should not be using the language “Far east”, ‘East Asia’ is better

  • Humphrey Hawksley 22nd Aug '20 - 8:47am

    An excellent analysis. This may becoming the defining foreign policy issue of the next decade, testing the relavance of liberal democracy to the full. Those around Xi Jinping are impressing upon him that his boundary-testing policies are placing China in a no-win situation. It is not trusted in Asia and does not have the wherewithall to control the region. In the past couple of years the U.S. has been skillfully building more robust regional alliances with a breadth and experience China cannot match. Its arrangements with North Korea, Pakistan and Cambodia etc. are no match for those the U.S. has with Japan, Australia, India etc. This will continue whether Trump or Biden wins in November. Hopefully, China will take on board the reality and quietly back down from picking regional fights before a real Cold War situation emerges.

  • Peter Chambers 22nd Aug '20 - 12:41pm

    China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi said in 2010, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact”. Since that time Philippine president
    Duerte decided in 2016 not to press the judgement of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The UK government has shredded national credibility over Brexit and moved in a more nationalist direction. We are rather powerless and watching history from the sidelines. Possibly the only way we can help is whatever marginal action we can take to return to a rules based international order.

  • Sue Sutherland 22nd Aug '20 - 1:50pm

    I agree with Humphrey Hawksley that China is likely to be the main concern of foreign policy in the next decade. China has been building economic relationships for some time in Africa and as Ian says countries like Australia, which exports raw materials to China, are closely involved economically.
    In addition China has developed a value system that supports empire. Britain viewed itself as ‘special and superior’ to other nations, based on the idea that Anglo Saxons were the greatest race and born to rule, when it was building its empire. America took over this feeling of superiority with regard to its democracy and the pursuit of the American dream. It didn’t create an Empire but has intervened in other countries militarily. China also has this belief in its superiority, even to posing the question of whether the Chinese are descended from Homo sapiens, or another, better, ancient ancestor. Unlike America, democracy doesn’t feature in China’s version of superiority. We will have to be on our guard to prevent it developing an Empire in the South China Sea.

  • Richard
    The term the far east covers both SE Asia and East Asia. China and Japan refer to those European countries by and near the Atlantic as the far west.

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