Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro, Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute
China uses both direct and the indirect approaches in pursuing its strategic goal of maritime expansion in the South China Sea.
The direct approach involves the build-up of a blue-water navy, the creation of artificial islands, and the militarization of these islands by deploying bombers and missiles on the land features.
In applying the indirect approach, China uses subtle psychological ploys to make the 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations accept its maritime expansion as legitimate and natural, and in doing so, isolate these small powers from their allies and security partners like the United States, Japan and Australia.
In many occasions, China would emphasize to ASEAN the urgency of advancing mutually beneficial peace and development in the South China Sea while at the same time criticize unnamed outside forces making frequent shows of force, creating the most destabilizing factor for peace and stability in the region.
This is an obvious reference to the US, which has conducted freedom of navigations (FONs) patrols to challenge Chinese island constructions and deter China’s maritime expansion.
China has used the tools in its psychological warfare toolbox at the recent ASEAN-China negotiations toward a framework agreement for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
In the single draft, China calls for more regular exercises between Beijing and the ten Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea, as well as the creation of a notification mechanism on military activities that can enable China and other ASEAN states to prevent other members states from holding joint military exercises with countries outside of the region, unless there’s prior notification of parties and no objections.
Endorsing the Chinese stratagem
Experts and analysts agree that if ASEAN accepts China’s second proposal as part of the COC, this will effectively allow Beijing to veto any Southeast Asian state’s plans to conduct joint naval exercises with the US, Australian and Japanese navies. This will effectively make the People’s Liberation Navy the dominant navy operating in Southeast Asian waters.
A prominent Singaporean strategic analysis of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Dr. William Choong, rightly discerned that China is using the negotiation for the COC framework as “a gambit to corral (the ASEAN member states) into a China-ASEAN modality and not have any external parties involved in any of these exercises.” He predicted that it was unlikely for any ASEAN country to include the clause.
Unfortunately, Choong is wrong. The Philippines, a formal U.S. ally and a security partner of Japan and Australia, sees nothing wrong with this Chinese stratagem to exclude US, Australian and Japanese naval presence in Southeast Asia waters.
Last week, Malacañang said that it does not object to China’s proposal to conduct military exercises with Southeast Asian nations and exclude the US in any military exercises with the Southeast Asian states.
Defending the Chinese proposal, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said that “Chinese authorities want to have military cooperation among its neighbors.”
He added that “of course, the United States is 10,000 miles away so if the intention is to build stronger relations between military forces who are neighbors then the United States will be really be out of place.”
Roque’s support for this Chinese proposal is erroneous and dangerous for two reasons: first, China’s proposal for regular military exercises with the ASEAN states is not a benign proposition. It is aimed to persuade these small powers to accept Chinese naval power and expansion in the South China Sea as normal and a matter of fait accompli.
Second, despite its distance from Southeast Asia, the US has established close military relations with almost all Southeast Asian countries since the end of the Second World War.
The US conducts several naval exercises with Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and the Philippines on a regular basis. This is because these countries have accepted the US role as the region’s off-shore balancer–the external naval power that acts as an honest broker in regional disputes.
The maritime Southeast Asian states are generally wary about conducting naval exercises with China because it is too close for comfort and they are aware that it is bent on maritime expansion not only in the South China Sea but into Southeast Asian waters.
The folly of appeasement
Roque’s endorsement of the Chinese stratagem in the COC framework negotiations is part of the Duterte administration’s appeasement policy on China in its efforts to earn goodwill and economic largess for its “Build, Build, Build” program.
This policy is reflected in its decision to delay and water down the implementation of the 2014 Philippine-US Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement, to set aside the July 12, 2016 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea awards to the Philippines, and to turn a blind eye on China’s deployment of anti-missile ship missiles, surface-to-surface missiles systems and electronic jammers in the artificial islands it created in the South China Sea.
Fortunately, this is just a proposal that will still be discussed and reviewed in several meetings before it is formally presented and endorsed by the member states in the ASEAN summit in October.
Hopefully, other wiser ASEAN member states will see this proposal as a ruse that will undermine their security relations and partnerships with the US, Australia and Japan, and, in the long run, will turn the South China Sea and waters around Southeast Asia into a Chinese lake.