Asia’s Future: Become Another Middle East or Avoid South China Sea War
By Yongnian Zheng

Asia’s Future: Become Another Middle East or Avoid South China Sea War

Aug. 24, 2016  |     |  0 comments

The South China Sea arbitration case initiated by the Philippines and the recent ruling on the case by The Hague court have raised a pertinent question: will Asia become another Middle East? Besides the fact that the former Philippine president had gone against the agreement with China to use bilateral negotiations to resolve disputes, another worry is the significant role that external forces had played in this affair.


What does “becoming another Middle East” mean? Countries in the Middle East and the region itself are currently in a chaotic state. Ever since the 18th century, Western imperialism has intervened in Middle Eastern affairs. After the Second World War, the US and its western allies established the rules and regulations for that region. Since the end of the Cold War, it was the US who single-handedly dictated the regional order. In other words, the internal affairs and the regional order of the Middle East are highly dependent on foreign influence. As the US starts to lose its shine as a superpower, the Middle Eastern order is beginning to look shaky too. In today’s state of affairs, although the US may have good political intentions for the Middle East, it is handicapped by its weakening ability.


The US may have also done more harm than good. After the September 11th attack, the US launched its War on Terror and hoped that its “Roadmap to Peace” plan would bring US-style democracy to the Middle East. However, the truth is that the US failed to secure the most basic of things there — political and social order, and people’s livelihoods and lives. Regimes broke down, anarchy swept across the region, and waves of refugees swarmed into Europe. An even more serious consequence is religious extremism. Islamic radicalism can be found in both failed regimes and in countries like Turkey. For example, the present Turkish President permits and even encourages radical groups. However, so long as the government is elected democratically, the US will give its support. In the long term, the consequence of allowing religious radicalism to grow will be devastating. It is impossible to imagine that the Middle East will be able to build a new order in the foreseeable future.


The Middle East saga demonstrates that when an order is built by and is dependent on a foreign party, the foundation is going to be unsteady. Once its interests in the region become diminished, the foreign power will turn its back and leave. When the US was reaping huge benefits from the Middle East, it threw itself into the affairs there; now that its gains have become smaller than the costs, the US is packing up and leaving. When the regional order loses its backing, a chaotic situation ensues. 


So, why do we ask whether Asia is becoming another Middle East? External forces are manifested in two ways — great power politics and internationalization. There are two great external powers that are involved in the affairs of Asia — the US and Japan (or a US-Japan alliance). These two countries have been actively meddling in Asian affairs since the beginning. There is evidence showing that these two countries are the manipulators behind the arbitration case. While the US and Japan have some interests in this region, they are not direct stakeholders. Their position in Asia in similar to the US’ stance in the Middle East — they stand to gain immensely if they are deeply involved; but if Asia falls into a crisis, they will not be fatally affected.


“Internationalization” refers to the Philippines unilaterally initiating the case against China at the PCA. The PCA smacked of commercialism, as it was employed by and served the Philippines. Therefore, China was justified in questioning the PCA’s credibility. Internationalization as exemplified by the Philippine case is problematic. First, as mentioned, the judgement was clouded by the commercial undertaking. Second, the judges’ political and ideological leanings easily influenced the ruling. Third, the court should have obtained adequate knowledge about the case, and should not have depended solely on information provided by the Philippines. It was no doubt a monumental task for the judges working on this highly complex South China Sea case. From the decidedly politicized ruling, we observe that the ideal rule of the law has changed to rule of the lawyer or even rule of the judge. From the example of Itu Aba (also known as Taiping Island) being downgraded from an island to a rock, the judges had introduced some radical ideas which set the stage for the collapse of the regional order.     


The ruling has totally invalidated China’s historical rights in the South China Sea. Since the start of the case, China has adopted the principle of “non-participation and non-acceptance.” Historically, China is not alone in choosing this posture; other great powers have also ignored similar judgments. In other words, the ruling would not change the current situation in the South China Sea in a practical manner. Nonetheless, there are two potential directions that this dispute could go.


First, the dispute could continue on the road of conflict. The US and Japan have repeatedly insisted that China accept the ruling. Although claimant countries like the Philippines and Vietnam are less direct in their demands, they too hope that China will accept. Non claimant countries also wish for China’s acceptance of the ruling out of fear of China’s rise. The next step taken by the claimant countries is going to be important. If they think they can stand to gain, they will take the arbitration route as demonstrated by the Philippines. Even if they are willing to return to the bilateral negotiation table with China, the US and Japan will try every possible means to persuade and encourage these countries to stir up trouble for China. If this is the case, the South China Sea dispute will worsen and a confrontation will erupt.


Second, the dispute could move towards a positive direction — peace and cooperation. Now that the arbitration case is over and done with, the countries involved have arrived at a new vantage point, i.e. they realize that resorting to law is not an effective way to solve disputes, and the solution will need to be sought by political and diplomatic means.


All hands need to be on deck if we want to achieve the positive development, although it may remain a pipe dream. The South China Sea issue has become highly-internationalized and involves the great powers, who will be relentless in their demand that China accept the PCA ruling. Even the Philippines will want to reap the greatest benefit out of the ruling which is in their favor. Therefore, the outcome will be quite bleak. Although the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed his willingness to mend ties with China, the US may pile pressure on the Philippines to prevent it from being too close to China.


We cannot rely on foreign powers like the US and Japan to come to our help, so it is up regional actors like China, ASEAN and other claimant countries to work things out.

If the dispute escalates into a conflict, it is highly likely that the region will sink into a Middle Eastern type of crisis. How can we prevent this from happening? As mentioned above, we cannot rely on foreign powers like the US and Japan to come to our help, so it is up regional actors like China, ASEAN and other claimant countries to work things out.


China has the most significant role in this quandary, as it is a great power in this region and also possesses the greatest capability to ensure the regional order. It was the earliest country to suggest the solution of “putting aside differences and seeking joint development,” but the idea did not receive positive response from other countries. Vietnam and the Philippines were constructing islands on the South China Sea long before China started to do so. China was merely responding in kind when it began to build islands; but the speed and quantity of the construction activities leapfrogged the other countries as a result of its immense capability. Now China has the opportunity to be an active leader in the South China Sea. It could provide maritime services, such as building lighthouses and harbors, and providing emergency search and rescue operations to other countries. China could also revive the Deng Xiaoping-initiated “seeking joint development” plan and engage other countries in co-development programs such as negotiation of fishery agreements, protection of marine ecosystems and resources, etc.


For ASEAN, its most important action will be to adopt an independent foreign policy and remain neutral. Should it choose sides, be it the US or China, ASEAN will head towards an inevitable split. Till today the grouping is a loosely constructed entity; its structure is both a strength and a weakness. The weakness is that it is not robust enough to withstand a strong external force. Although China understands ASEAN’s close strategic ties with the US, it will not put up with ASEAN countries closing ranks against it. In other words, China will not tolerate an ASEAN that side with the US and Japan to go against it. Either the US or China has the ability to orchestrate an ASEAN “split.”


The “self-isolation” that the US proclaims China is going through now is just wishful thinking of the US and some ASEAN countries. If China really needs to depend on economic means to win friends (just like how the US is relying on strategic trade groups to achieve that), it will win as many friends as the US. Further, China is not asking ASEAN to side with it; it is only asking ASEAN to remain neutral. If ASEAN lacks independence and needs the US to help it become “stronger,” it does not bode well for the long-term future of the grouping. As the Middle East saga has shown, an order that is dependent on an external power will not have a strong foundation. An independent ASEAN will ensure its sustainability.

It is equally important for other claimant countries to have an independent foreign policy and to adopt a neutral stand. The US “pivot to Asia” has caused some countries to have illusions about the US, although some leaders of these countries may be pro-America themselves. From the example of the Middle East, it is safe to say that the US will not declare war on China for the interest of any ASEAN country. This situation is determined by the current global order. Although there are some differences between the US and China, the situation is still evolving. The relation between the two countries is unlike the US-Soviet relation during the Cold War, which was mainly based on nuclear rivalry. The US-China relation of today — in economic terms at least — has become what some academics have termed “Chimerica.” The two countries also have much for cooperation in the international arena, ranging from the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons to climate change. The best interest for the US is — and has always been — not to lose China; if it does, the US will only be the “overlord” of half the globe. If the claimant counties are circumspect about this state of affairs, they will cast aside the illusions they harbor about America. Even if the US does go to war for the interests of some ASEAN countries, its capabilities might be over-rated too. The chaos that the US has inflicted upon the Middle East and other regions is proof of that.


More importantly, some of the rhetoric used by the US, Japan and some ASEAN countries, like “Big nations should not bully smaller ones,” “might makes right,” etc., are actually the logic of the US and the west. It is not China’s logic. A case in point is that China and Vietnam solved their land border dispute and Beibu Gulf maritime boundary issue using political and diplomatic negotiations. Not only did China not bully Vietnam, it also gave quite a few concessions to Vietnam. If countries like the Philippines resort to using great power politics or “internationalization” of the law to force China to concede, they will not get any benefit out of it and their interests will be hurt too.


Since the announcement of the ruling, all concerned parties are still mulling their next moves. The actions they take will decide which direction Asia heads to: spiral into a Middle Eastern type of crisis, or avoid war and head towards peace and stability.


(Translated by Chean Chian Cheong)

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