Southeast Asia as a Sino-US Battleground: China’s Measured Response Amid American Attacks

China appears to have made a momentary adjustment in its response to American criticisms of its actions in the South China Sea. It has adopted a calibrated and reciprocal response, but it has not over-reacted. Beijing could be wary of overplaying its hand and hence strengthening the positions of China hawks in the United States.

Workers removed the US insignia from the consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu on July 26, one day after Beijing ordered its closure as relations deteriorated in a Cold War-style standoff. (Photo: Noel Celis, AFP)

Lye Liang Fook

30 July 2020

With the acceleration in tensions between the United States and China globally, Southeast Asia has again been caught up in clash of the two titans. The recent trigger for this was the US Department of State statement in July 2020 on the US Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea where it dismissed China’s claims to most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful.” The statement implicitly endorsed the claims of the ASEAN claimant states in the area. This is a break from its previous position where the US said it took no position on individual claims.

Building on this statement, the US Ambassador to Thailand Michael George DeSombre and the US Charge de Áffairs in Myanmar George Sibley wrote op-ed pieces (titled respectively as “Upholding the Sovereign Rights of All” and “How the Erosion of Sovereignty Elsewhere Impacts Myanmar at Home”) carried on their embassies’ websites that lambasted China on a range of issues, including undermining the sovereignty of ASEAN countries in the South China Sea (going beyond the mere undermining of the sovereignty of ASEAN claimant states), trampling on the democratic spirit in Hong Kong and irresponsible business and economic activities in Myanmar. On the South China Sea issue in particular, Ambassador DeSombore highlighted that even though Thailand is not a claimant state, its interests in the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea are among the “most pronounced in the region” given that its trade in goods exceeds 80 per cent of its GDP.

China has responded to the US criticisms head on, albeit with varying reactions from its embassies in Southeast Asia. The most robust response has come from its embassies in Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines. Its reactions in Thailand and Myanmar appeared to be directed at rebutting the points made in the op-ed pieces by Ambassador DeSombre and Mr Sibley. The embassies’ spokespersons accuse America of driving a wedge between China and other relevant countries. They assert that through the joint efforts of China and ASEAN countries, the situation in the South China Sea has “remained peaceful and stable and is still improving” and that they are not only “fully and effectively implementing” the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, but also “accelerating the consultation on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.” It is worthwhile to note that China’s claims that consultations on a Code of Conduct (COC) is being speeded up does not appear to be borne out by current realities. The Covid-19 situation means that there are now no physical consultations between China and ASEAN on the COC, such that the China-set goal of 2021 for the conclusion of the negotiations is increasingly in question. Recent Chinese intrusions into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of other ASEAN claimant states and US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the area do not support China’s claims that the SCS is peaceful and stable.

China’s response so far seemed to be calibrated to the intensity of the US activity or action. This was most obvious in the responses of the Chinese embassies in Thailand and Myanmar where the US representatives there have been most critical of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

It is also not surprising that the Chinese embassy in the Philippines mounted a robust response as this is the fourth anniversary of the Arbitral Tribunal award on the case Manila lodged against China over Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. Apart from the embassy there issuing a statement deriding the Arbitral Tribunal award of 12 July 2016, the Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian gave an extensive interview to Manila Times in July 2020 expounding on the progress of China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in the Philippines, the two countries’ mutual assistance to fight Covid-19, and China’s reiteration of its commitment to work with countries directly concerned in the South China Sea to resolve their differences through negotiation and consultation. Apart from the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar, the Chinese embassies in Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei were virtually silent on the South China Sea issue.

China’s response so far seemed to be calibrated to the intensity of the US activity or action. This was most obvious in the responses of the Chinese embassies in Thailand and Myanmar where the US representatives there have been most critical of China’s actions in the South China Sea. This appears to be the same approach China has adopted in closing down the US Consulate in Chengdu after its consulate was instructed to wind down in Houston.

There are a number of possible reasons why China has adopted such a measured and calibrated response, which appears to be an adjustment of its approach a few months back during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time, there were several instances of wolf warrior diplomacy but such occurrences appear to have been dialled down somewhat. One possible reason for this adjustment could be that China does not wish to play into the hands of those in the United States who would like to single out China, particularly with the US presidential elections looming. Another reason is that China may have realised that overreacting may further tarnish its international image already battered by its troubled relations with a number of key countries, this including Australia, India and Japan. Yet another possible reason is that China does not wish to see Southeast Asian states veer closer to the United States at a time when tensions are mounting between Beijing and Washington. While the motivations of Beijing cannot be ascertained, one thing is clear – Sino-American tensions will not be ameliorated anytime soon.

Mr Lye Liang Fook is Coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/104

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