By David Gitter |
As China once againÂ offersÂ ASEAN states billions of dollars and promotes anotherÂ treaty for “Good Neighborly and Friendly Cooperation”Â (which sounds an awful lot like theÂ Treaty of Amity and Cooperation), Southeast Asian nations should consider how China perceives ASEAN and what goals it hopes to gain from its interactions with it. By and large, China has maintained aÂ favorableÂ view of ASEAN since opening relations with it in 1991. Two factors contributing to Beijingâ€™s positive perception of the Association include its flexible and non-binding â€œASEAN Way,â€ and its openness to Chinese win-win overtures that help Beijing secure its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea (SCS). Given Chinaâ€™s exploitation of these characteristics in pursuit of its expansionist goals, ASEAN should seriously consider whether it wants to sign on to another vague deal when diplomatic capital might be better spent on alternative frameworks.
Perhaps unexpectedly, China finds ASEAN a favorable diplomatic partner in part because its diplomatic style is compatible with Chinaâ€™s. American criticisms that are directed at bothÂ ASEAN forumsÂ and theÂ US-China Strategic and Economic DialogueÂ are remarkably similar, describing both bodies as talk-shops that lack substance and are at times largely symbolic. However, these very characteristics of the â€œASEAN Wayâ€ offer Beijing a non-confrontational, consensus-based mechanism for addressing regional issues that is in stark contrast to the expectations levied on Beijing in Western diplomatic forums. Like ASEAN, Chinaâ€™s own diplomatic style has traditionally tended to focus more on form than on substance.Â Although the ASEAN Way may frustrate western governments that seek to achieve concrete decisions after attending the Associationâ€™s many meetings,Â Â Chinese diplomats likely find ASEAN diplomacy preferable for its comparatively ambiguous, hard to enforce agreements. This inclination mirrors the Chinese Communist Partyâ€™s (CCP) domestic preference for guidelines and regulations versus detailed, enforceable laws that could threaten to control Party actions.Â In the SCS, this preference is reflected through Beijingâ€™s vocal support for vague and easily circumvented agreements such as theÂ Treaty of Amity and CooperationÂ (TAC) and theÂ Declaration of Conduct on the South China SeaÂ (DOC), and its relative lack of enthusiasm for aÂ Code of Conduct on the South China SeaÂ (COC). Beijing has even lessÂ regardÂ for the SCS plan of the only other non-ASEAN claimant, Taiwanâ€™sÂ East China Sea Peace Initiative, which Taipei asserts is applicable to the SCS and has successfully guided the islandâ€™s diplomacy towards maritime dispute resolution withÂ JapanÂ and theÂ Philippines.
In addition to its predilectionÂ for amorphous agreements such as TAC and the DOC, Beijing finds ASEAN receptive to its win-win diplomatic framework, which allows China to slowly consolidate its territorial claims in the SCS in exchange for economic gain. China seems to have first adopted this view during theÂ Asian Financial CrisisÂ of 1997, in which China wasted no opportunity to publicize its leadership and responsibility by highlighting its decision not to devalue the RMB at â€œa big priceâ€ to itself. Chinese leaders seem to assess that the crisis showed ASEAN that strengthening mutually beneficial cooperation and regional economicÂ integrationÂ was the route that both ASEAN and China must take to achieve common development and prosperity. China now has anÂ FTA agreementÂ with ASEAN and is the Associationâ€™s largest trading partner, with a total of 443.6 billion USD in trade in 2013. In fall 2013 Xi Jinping announced his plan for a new commercial route dubbed the â€œMaritime Silk Roadâ€, in recognition of ASEAN and Chinaâ€™s â€œshared destinyâ€ that enables ASEAN to benefit from Chinaâ€™s development. Additionally, China believes that its newÂ Asian Infrastructure Investment BankÂ can become an important source of financing for ASEAN as it strives to meet its massive infrastructure needs. The ongoing theme seems to be that Southeast Asian countries can once again benefit from Chinaâ€™s development and wealth as it did centuries ago.
Nevertheless, if Beijingâ€™s message of co-prosperity and development is the carrot of China-ASEAN relations, then economic isolation and coercion is the stick. ChinaÂ maintainsÂ that the SCS is not an issue between ASEAN and China. When the Philippineâ€™s challenged Beijing over their bilateral territorial dispute, itÂ foundÂ its fruit exports blocked and a â€œsafetyâ€ ban enacted that stopped Chinese tourism to the archipelago. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang made a point to skip the Philippines on their fall 2013Â Southeast Asia tour, where the leaders signed lucrative business deals and set ambitious trade targets. Likewise, recent ChineseÂ mapsÂ of Chinaâ€™s Maritime Silk Road show its path conspicuously bypassing the Philippines as it winds from Southeast Asia all the way to Venice. Now even as Premier Li pushes for a “Treaty of Good Neighborly and Friendly Cooperation between China and ASEAN Countries”, China continues itsÂ land-reclamationÂ activities in the SCS and is currentlyÂ buildingÂ an island large enough to hold an airstrip. Clearly Beijingâ€™s message is not lost on ASEAN, which has yet to publicly unite against Chinaâ€™s gradual territorial gains even at its own expense.
In consideration of Beijingâ€™s efforts to leverage the ASEAN Way and win-win diplomacy to advance its territorial goals, ASEAN states should think twice before signing on to Chinaâ€™s treaty of friendship and cooperation. They should recall that the TAC, DOC, and theÂ ASEAN-China joint statement on DOC in South China SeaÂ have yet to moderate Chinaâ€™s actions in disputed waters; there is little reason to believe a new friendship treaty will incentivize Beijing to restrain itself. ASEAN should instead seriously consider Taiwanâ€™sÂ East China Sea Peace Initiative, which the US Republican Party (nowÂ in controlÂ of both houses of Congress) strongly advocated for through aÂ Resolution Supporting Taiwanâ€™s Peace Initiative in the South China Sea. If a united ASEAN can leverage stronger US support to shield it from Chinese indignation, the initiative may prove a preferable diplomatic platform for joining ASEAN and Taiwan against creeping Chinese expansion in the SCS.
Oxford University Press, 2013.
Lecture, George Washington University, Washington, DC, October 29, 2014.