Salami slicing ASEAN solidarity
6 Sep 2013|

No one can dispute the fact that the South China Sea has been a sea of contention in recent years. And now Malaysia has added confusion to the already torturous mix. Speaking to Bloomberg News in Brunei last month, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that the Chinese navy could conduct patrols off Malaysia’s coasts as long as China’s ‘intention is not to go to war’. He added that Malaysia and China had built ‘enough level of trust that we will not be moved by day-to-day politics or emotions’. On the sidelines of meetings with counterparts from ASEAN as well as the US, he said that ‘Just because you have enemies, doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies. His comments must have raised many eyebrows across Southeast Asia, and a frisson of excitement in Beijing.

For one, Mr Hishammuddin’s phraseology is problematic. The term ‘enemy’ has been banished from the strategic lexicon since the end of Cold War bipolar competition. And one could only wonder what he meant exactly by China having ‘no intention of war’. To borrow from Clausewitz: war is the continuation of policy via other means; but there are coercive steps short of war that are highly effective policy instruments.

Indeed, coercion has been the linchpin of Chinese strategy in its South China Sea dispute with ASEAN countries Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. Last year, China effectively shut out the Philippines from the contested Scarborough Shoal. In March this year, the People’s Liberation Army navy triggered alarm across the region when it sent four warships to land troops on James Shoal, 80 km off the Malaysian coast. If Hishammuddin’s comments are to be construed as the collective position of the highest echelons of the Malaysian government, it would represent quite a turnaround in Kuala Lumpur’s approach to the South China Sea.

In March 2009, then premier Abdullah Badawi paid a visit to the Malaysian-occupied Swallow Reef in the Spratly Islands to support Malaysia’s territorial claims. In May that year, Malaysia and Vietnam submitted a joint claim to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—a move which resulted in a Chinese protest and Beijing’s first official submission of its now-infamous nine-dashed line claim to the South China Sea.

From another standpoint, Mr Hishammudin’s comments can be understood more fully if one considers the broader context of relations between China and Malaysia. China is now Malaysia’s largest trading partner. Compared to other disputants, Malaysia has a relatively small claim to the South China Sea. Compared to the Philippines, which claims 53 features in the South China Sea, Malaysia claims only 12.

Writing in an IISS Adelphi paper last year, my colleagues Sarah Raine and Christian Le Miere argued that Malaysia’s approval of China’s contention that the guarantee to freedom of navigation and overflight as stated in Article 58 of UNCLOS doesn’t cover military activities and surveillance also provided ‘helpful common ground.’

However, the key problem with Mr Hishammudin’s comments is this: he failed to consult with his ASEAN colleagues before the Bloomberg interview, to the extent that it has affected the grouping’s solidarity on the South China Sea issue. That’s significant; the South China Sea issue has seen ASEAN—for all its achievements in building regional architecture and engaging major powers—suffer major setbacks.

In July 2012, the grouping suffered a major embarrassment when it failed to issue a communiqué at an ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh. It was widely reported that Cambodia—the ASEAN chair and close China ally—had exercised its prerogative by not issuing the document. More than 12 months on, ASEAN is showing more signs of division, as China, Japan and the United States seek to woo ASEAN countries into their respective spheres.

According to Kavi Chongittavorn, a respected ASEAN watcher and Thai journalist, ASEAN’s mantra of ‘siding with none’ among the major powers has lost its relevance. Tokyo has wooed the Philippines with the promise of trade and support for the latter’s coast guard. For its part, China’s seen to have Cambodia in its pocket over the South China Sea issue. Mr Hishammudin’s recent comments show that Malaysia, one of the founding members of ASEAN, will at the very least not oppose Chinese activism on the issue. Myanmar and Laos have limited interest in the South China Sea, while Brunei, like Malaysia, has only a small claim. In effect, this only leaves Singapore and Indonesia—and perhaps Thailand—when it comes to finding solutions. The upshot: this is exactly where strategists in Beijing would want ASEAN to be: divided, and not speaking with one voice on South China Sea issue—the very opposite of what ASEAN officials vowed to do after talks in Thailand in August.

Compared to ASEAN, China has been anything but inconsistent on the South China Sea issue. During a recent visit to Beijing, Chinese think-tank analysts gave me an earful when I suggested that China has been assertive on the South China Sea; after all, China was ‘merely defending what belongs to it’. They added that ASEAN states with claims to the South China Sea shouldn’t fear direct one-to-one negotiations with China, which has historically been fair when it comes to territorial disputes (Taylor Fravel comes pretty much to the same conclusion: since 1949, China has participated in 23 territorial disputes and six maritime sovereignty disputes, and has offered concessions 25 times in 17 of those disputes).

China’s strategy towards the South China Sea dispute is clear: divide and conquer members of ASEAN, and slice the salami until the group is left with very little. And China can afford to wait, based on the Deng Xiaoping dictum of ‘hiding one’s capacities and biding one’s time’ (taoguang yanghui). The sad truth is that ASEAN can’t.

William Choong is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user ale-zan.