Soft power is the capability to use economic or cultural influence to shape the preferences of others. In the contest for soft power dominance in Southeast Asia, China has been gaining ground on the US. However, its recent actions in the South China Sea are eroding these gains and playing into the hands of China’s enemies like anti-China hawks and media in the US and the region.
China has a history of intimidating states and international oil companies to cease operations in areas China claims. Given this background, China’s continuing incursions with a seismic survey and Coast Guard vessels into oil blocks leased to India’s national oil company and a Russian company near Vanguard Bank in Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are perceived to reflect China’s historic claim to much of the South China Sea. Indeed, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the seismic survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 is “operating in waters under the jurisdiction of China”.
That claim has been rejected by an international arbitration panel in a case brought against it under the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), by the Philippines, a perpetually poor and militarily defenseless developing country. That panel also ruled that no feature in the Spratlys is entitled to a 200 nautical mile EEZ. This means that China’s claim to parts of others’ legitimate EEZs in the South China Sea is not accepted by most nations — including those in Southeast Asia.
According to US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, “China’s actions undermine regional peace and security [and] impose economic costs on Southeast Asian states by blocking their access to…unexploited hydrocarbon resources.” Now it is been undertaking marine scientific research (MSR) with a government-owned ship in what is clearly Vietnam’s legitimate EEZ while ignoring so far futile protests. Ortagus said the actions of the survey vessel are “an escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources in the South China Sea”.
There is no ambiguity here. This is a violation of UNCLOS which both have ratified. It requires prior permission for MSR by other states in a coastal country’s EEZ.
Moreover, by having Coast Guard and purported “maritime militia” vessels accompany the government research ship gives the impression that China is employing the threat of use of force to back up its illegal incursion. Not only is this a blatant physical defiance of its international legal agreement, it is a gift to the China bashers and a sure loser in the soft power contest. Indeed, government officials and anti-China media in the US and Vietnam, as well as the domestic opposition to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, constitute a chorus of criticism. Now Australia and Malaysia have joined the chorus although they have not called out China by name.
A finer but nevertheless significant point, China’s actions are also undermining its argument that some US military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes in and over its EEZ violate the UNCLOS requirements to obtain consent for such activities and to pay due regard to the coastal state’s rights and duties in its EEZ. Now it is doing the same in other countries’ waters.
Use of force or its threat to do so in China’s multitude of disputes in the South China Sea with fellow ASEAN claimants could upset the apple cart of China-Southeast Asia relations.
Another part of the picture is that China has been accused of delaying negotiations of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC). The patience of its negotiating partners is wearing thin and China critics are blaming it for the lack of progress. They are alleging that China is trying to use ASEAN and the COC in its struggle against the US. They point to China’s proposal to include in the COC a clause stating that “the Parties shall not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection”. Although the meaning of “parties concerned” is not clear, the proposal appears to be aimed at the US and its extra regional allies and supporters like Japan and Australia. China has also proposed that “co-operation shall not be conducted…with companies from countries outside the region”. This appears to be an attempt to confine petroleum exploitation in the South China Sea to cooperation between it and the other claimants. In a clear rebuke to this proposal, Australia, Japan and the US issued a joint statement that the COC should be “consistent with existing international law, as reflected in UNCLOS; …[and] not prejudice the interests of third parties or the rights of all states under international law.” But that itself is not as important to ASEAN countries as the perception that China is pushing ASEAN members to change their foreign policy.
The collision between a Chinese vessel and an anchored Philippine fishing boat and the failure of the Chinese boat to help the victims has become an international embarrassment. These serious charges question China’s support for basic civilized norms. But instead of admitting fault and punishing the guilty parties, China has demurred regarding this apparent inhumane breach of ancient sea faring custom. It is as if it did not have to address even this most egregious act.
This incident is being considered in the context of its other aggressive behavior towards the Philippines, like its seizure of Scarborough Shoal, its massing of fishing boats near contested features claimed by the Philippines and its initial refusal — even if temporary — to discuss the arbitration ruling with its close friend and supporter President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, unnecessarily embarrassing and angering him. In May 2017, Duterte claimed that China had threatened war if the Philippines tried to enforce the ruling by drilling for oil in areas claimed by China.
This pattern does not paint a pretty picture for victims of former imperialism. Indeed, this behavior is beginning to look like it. Having suffered the bitter experience of political and cultural “colonialism”, Southeast Asian nations are very sensitive to any real or imagined slights stemming from a sense of cultural superiority. If this behavior is continued, it could well destroy whatever gains in soft power China has painstakingly built up over decades.
It is not too late. China’s political situation in Southeast Asia is quite different from that of the Western colonialists and neo-colonialists in several significant respects. China also experienced domination by the West and Japan and should be able to empathize with the bitterness of former colonies and not repeat the colonialists’ mistakes. Moreover, it has more legitimacy gradually exerting power and influence in a region of which it is a permanent part. Most important, in the modern era, it has yet to subjugate any Southeast Asian nation — although it now seems to be coming close to doing so in a de facto sense.
Nevertheless, the damage so far is reparable. China’s present and projected economic power and largesse somewhat mitigate its recent behavior. However, China needs to be careful to keep it that way if it seeks to maintain and even expand its soft power and political influence in Southeast Asia. Slow but steady will win the soft power race. Use of force or its threat to do so in its multitude of disputes in the South China Sea with fellow ASEAN claimants could upset the apple cart of China-Southeast Asia relations and “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”.