During a recent book talk in Washington, DC, a former U.S. ambassador asked me about the supposed dearth of resistance among Southeast Asian countries against Chinese revanchist ambitions. After all, China not only claims much of the South China Sea as its “blue national soil,” but has also deployed an ever-greater armada of paramilitary and illegal fishing vessels well into the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of smaller neighbors.
A more careful analysis, however, reveals that the issue at hand is not the lack of resistance per se, but instead the absence of coherent and coordinated responses from China’s neighbors. History shows that Beijing responds to pressure, provided it stems from a collective response of key neighbors and global powers. Recent examples include adjustments to the Belt and Road Initiative amid criticisms about debt trap diplomacy, Beijing’s decision to forego veto powers within the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the deliberate launching of a “peripheral diplomacy” strategy to appease its neighbors. Unfortunately, despite some encouraging displays of resistance in recent months, the key players in the South China Sea remain divided.
The Great Defector
Earlier this decade, the Philippines made the bold and ultimately lonely decision to take China to international court over the South China Sea disputes. Despite its formal and behind-the-scenes support for the move, Vietnam opportunistically refused to file a parallel case to challenge China’s expansive claims.
Instead, Hanoi and much of ASEAN chose to distance themselves from Manila, comfortably observing Beijing’s potential responses from the safety of diplomatic sidelines. Within the region, Manila’s landmark victory received a combination of deafening silence and qualified support. Only a handful of outside parties including the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand firmly stood behind the Philippines. It was precisely the lack of robust regional support and international solidarity that strengthened the hands of pro-China elements in the Philippines, which have unabashedly pushed for strategic acquiescence.
Even more troublingly, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has welcomed joint development discussions with China even if this could violate both the Philippines’ own constitution as well as the 2016 arbitral ruling which unequivocally rejected Beijing’s excessive claims in adjacent waters. Moreover, the powerful defense establishment, which enjoys robust ties with the United States and has exhibited significant institutional independence in recent years, has failed to prevent China’s progressive penetration of the country’s critical infrastructure. The Armed Forces of the Philippines even acceded to a controversial deal with a China Telecom-backed partner, with potentially disastrous security implications. Meanwhile, the military has, so far, also failed to block the development of the highly strategic Sangley International Airport by a Chinese company which has been involved in the illegal land reclamation activities within the South China Sea.
This contrasts with previous successful efforts by the Philippine defense establishment to block a Chinese bid for strategic bases in Subic Bay and islands close to Taiwan on national security grounds. Meanwhile the Philippine Coast Guard, which has been empowered to oversee the country’s South China Sea policy, is now under new leadership which has been openly advocating for resource-sharing with and, some critics would say, strategic acquiescence to China.
The Reverse Tide
It is no wonder that China has described the Duterte administration as Beijing’s “most respected friend” and a dependable ally within the region. As the current ASEAN-China country coordinator, the Philippines wields significance influence in shaping regional responses to the South China Sea disputes, most crucially the ongoing negotiations over a Code of Conduct (COC). In an ironic twist of events, today it is the Philippines’ ASEAN neighbors that are employing legal warfare to assert their rights and invoking the Manila-initiated landmark 2016 arbitration award against China. Over the past three months, three key regional states have either threatened or directly challenged Beijing’s maritime expansionism.
Beginning in November, Vietnamese deputy foreign minister Le Hoai Trung openly warned of potential “arbitration and litigation measures” to counter China’s aggressive behavior. Encouraged by the successful precedent set by the Philippines, Hanoi can credibly threaten compulsory arbitration against Beijing. Troubled by the months-long naval standoff over oil and gas resources that are claimed by China but fall well within the Vietnamese EEZ, Hanoi is expected to advocate for a tougher stance in the South China Sea as this year’s ASEAN chair.
But just as China began to warn Vietnam against resistance, it was caught off guard by Malaysia’s bolt-from-the-blue submission of a claim for an extended continental shelf. After China’s furious response to Malaysia’s December surprise, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah was quick to characterize Beijing’s expansive claims as “ridiculous,” going so far as to threaten international arbitration to assert Malaysia’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea, evidently encouraged by the Philippine example. In retrospect, Malaysia’s move should not come as a surprise since it represents a logical extension of its progressive resistance to nefarious Chinese influence. As Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the author last year, “When we come against a very powerful [force] we need to find other ways of dealing with the problem rather just open confrontation.”
Yet even more dramatic was Indonesia’s response to the intrusion of Chinese vessels into waters off the coast of the resource-rich Natuna Islands. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry openly accused China of a “violation of [its] sovereignty” and, invoking the Philippine arbitration award, challenged Beijing’s excessive claims to traditional rights in faraway waters as having “no legal basis” in modern international law. Jakarta upped the ante when President Joko Widodo, who has been accused of being too passive toward Beijing, made a visit to the contested area, warning China, “We have a district here, a regent, and a governor here. There are no more debates. De facto, de jure, Natuna is Indonesia.” Beyond tough words and diplomatic demarches, Indonesia has bolstered its military position in the Natuna area to counter Chinese activity in the area.
Crucially, all three countries are indirectly invoking the Philippines’ landmark arbitration award to assert their own sovereign rights and challenge China’s expansive claims. And though none of them are U.S. allies, they have gradually bolstered defense and maritime security cooperation with Washington to keep Beijing’s ambitions in check.
The Philippines, which has strategically defected to Beijing under Duterte, remains a major obstacle to a more robust ASEAN pushback against China—an ironic position for a U.S. treaty ally and longtime advocate of international law. Nonetheless, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam should continue to resist China’s pressure by pushing for a mutually-beneficial COC, questioning joint development agreements that undermine the interests of smaller states, invoking modern international law against Beijing’s excessive claims, and welcoming tighter strategic cooperation with external powers such as the United States. By holding the line, they could eventually empower voices of resistance in the Philippines that could push the country in a sounder and more balanced strategic direction as Duterte heads into his twilight years in office.