Beijing is prevailing over its neighbors in the South China Sea. It may also have the solution.
By Chunjuan Nancy Wei
May 21, 2015 The Diplomat
|Image Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro|
The U.S. rebalance to Asia has yet to alter the desired outcome for U.S. allies and partners in the South China Sea (SCS): Checking Beijing’s advances in territorial claims. Instead, despite a few successful maneuvers, most of the strategies adopted by the Philippines and Vietnam have backfired. China has seized every opportunity to advance its claims in response to its neighbors’ perceived provocations and operational incompetence. Let us consider some examples of how SCS competitors act, react, and interact in the strategic pursuit of their own self-interests.
First, the Philippine’s clumsy operation at the Scarborough Shoal during 2012 gave Beijing an opening to control this strategic reef in the northeast SCS. Manila deployed its largest naval asset, a decommissioned U.S. 1960s-era patrol cutter, to apprehend Chinese fishermen ensconced in the lagoon, pursuing them for alleged poaching. But the entrance proved too small and the water too shallow for the warship. Instead, a small boarding team proceeded inside the lagoon to make the arrest. This provided time and space for Chinese law enforcement vessels to intervene. Additionally, Manila lost on the propaganda front. The employment of a naval vessel conveyed the impression the Philippines had militarized the dispute. This allowed Beijing to score points by charging that an aggressive, bullying Philippine navy had pointed guns at hapless Chinese fishermen who simply sought refuge inside the Shoal from a storm. Moreover, China was able to exert retaliatory economic pressure – ranging from tourism to banana trade – imposing a considerable cost on Manila. In the end, to preserve bilateral relations, the Philippines had to re-appoint a retired diplomat as the new ambassador to Beijing. That is, factional infighting had left the Pacific nation without an ambassador to China for more than a year. The ensuing months-long standoff handed Beijing a comprehensive victory over Manila.