Apr 22, 2011 | 08:52 GMT

6 mins read

China Political Memo: April 22, 2011

In his keynote speech during the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia's 2011 annual conference April 14-16 in Sanya, China, Chinese President Hu Jintao called on Asian countries to put away their differences, seek common ground and enhance regional security. In what he described as the "new security concept," Hu emphasized the need to continue opening up Asia to the rest of the world and to recognize the interests of countries outside the region. The speech was widely interpreted as an attempt by Beijing to alleviate the concerns of China's neighbors over its economic growth and military build-up, particularly in contentious territorial disputes. But the rhetoric does not represent a dramatic shift in China's assertiveness or its strategic interests in the region. Though STRATFOR sources have indicated that China would assume a less assertive stance this year, this is merely a temporary change in tactics for convenience. The approach described by the new security concept is one that Beijing has been promoting in theory for the last five to 10 years, while it has continued to grow more assertive in practice over the same period. In the context of renewed U.S. interest in the region, Beijing is trying to signal that it is not seeking hegemony. Rather than trying to keep others out of Asia and keep the continent for itself, so the message goes, Beijing would prefer a multi-polar mechanism that recognizes both the United States and China and ensures something more than what China calls a "zero-sum Cold War game." Beijing says this would allow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to engage with both powers (and others such as Russia and India). Hu's statement coincided with intense diplomatic efforts in recent months between Beijing and Southeast Asian countries, particularly over disputed territory in the South China Sea. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun visited Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on April 20, and the two countries have signed an agreement outlining basic principles to solve the maritime disputes. Though no specific details have been made public, the agreement reportedly is designed to complement the Code of Conduct signed by China and ASEAN countries in 2002. Beijing's standing policy is to pursue a bilateral approach to resolving territorial claims in the South China Sea, thereby dividing ASEAN countries that have overlapping territorial claims. In a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin confirmed his country's support of Beijing's bilateral approach and insisted on engaging China on the issue. Next week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to visit Malaysia and Indonesia, the current ASEAN chair. In early March, territorial disputes in the South China Sea once again drew international attention when a Chinese patrol boat harassed Philippine energy exploration efforts in the Reed Bank. Since then, the Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest with the United Nations against China's "nine-dash line" claim of the entire South China Sea (named for a Chinese map that shows a series of nine dashes around its extensive claims in the sea). The Philippines also promised to boost the military capability of its relatively weak navy. In a bid to multilateralize the issue, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is mulling over the idea of joint exploration with ASEAN countries, which will be discussed in the upcoming ASEAN summit. Though not officially put forward, the idea is at least a rhetorical shift from the traditional Philippine stance toward joint exploration with China. In 2005, the Philippines showed willingness to work bilaterally with China by promoting a joint study in the South China Sea with China's state-owned oil giant China National Offshore Oil Corp. and later brokered a deal with Vietnam. This raised concerns in China, which had always insisted that a bilateral approach was necessary. But the deal obviated the need to solve the border demarcation issue and allowed a level of cooperation among neighbors. More important for China, the agreement on joint exploration could effectively keep a third party — the United States — out of the South China Sea issue. ASEAN states themselves remain largely divided over the maritime disputes and have been cautious about the U.S. offer to serve as a third-party mediator under ASEAN auspices. The joint-exploration idea offers an opportunity for China to keep ASEAN countries divided by exploiting their individual economic interests. By making bilateral or trilateral exploration deals with certain ASEAN states, each deal may run contrary to the interests of the other ASEAN members, which further gives China the upper hand. For some ASEAN states, abandoning ASEAN unity in order to agree to joint exploration with China could help them solidify their individual territorial claims through development activities as well as give them a chance to tap a much-needed energy resource. Going back to Hu's new security concept, the idea of China forming multilateral arrangements with ASEAN states may be perceived as less divisive. However, if ASEAN states can effectively unify without China's involvement, China will lose its leverage, and its loss could leave room for other regional powers like the United States to support ASEAN. With the changing dynamics in the region, seeking joint statements on conduct or joint exploration agreements in the South China Sea remains an option for China, as long as it can keep the United States out of any developing multilateral framework. Reacting to U.S. re-engagement in the region, China began testing its old rhetoric and appeared to be assuming a more assertive stance, both diplomatically and militarily. This provoked a negative reaction from China's Asian neighbors, who grew increasingly concerned about its territorial claims. The United States moved to take advantage of this turn, and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in July 2010 that security and free passage in the South China Sea were in the U.S. national interest. What China seems to be doing now — at least for the time being — is backing off its more assertive rhetoric and tactics without permanently abandoning them or significantly changing its strategy. By calling for a new regional security mechanism, China wants to reduce competition and confrontation within the region, at least verbally, while having its regional role and interests recognized. Such a mechanism would have multiple interests at play, and it could enable China to better understand and exploit local issues in the Asia-Pacific region, which could help reduce, though not eliminate, the overarching influence of the United States. This in turn could even buffer the bilateral competition emerging between China and the United States, providing more space for China to get where it wants to go. However, Beijing will have to play a clever game. None of the Southeast Asian states have forgotten China's more threatening side, and many of them continue to view the United States and its allies as their best defense against a mightier China.

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