May 13, 2017 | 17:25 GMT

5 mins read

China Softens Its Approach in Southeast Asia

A member of China's honor guard waits to receive Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on May 11.
(WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

As countries in Southeast Asia puzzle over the direction of U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese development deals appear to be tilting the regional balance of power in Beijing's favor, at least for now. North Korea has commanded much of Washington's attention recently, enabling China to make headway in bilateral discussions with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative Forum. The two-day conference — which aims to showcase China's progress on its signature multinational economic development campaign — kicks off on Sunday. And in the runup to the event, meetings between China and South China Sea claimants Vietnam and the Philippines suggest that Beijing's more conciliatory approach to managing regional tensions is paying off.

At a meeting in Beijing on Thursday, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to push for "stability" in the areas of the South China Sea whose control they dispute. They also pledged to move forward with negotiations over joint fishing patrols and resource exploration in the Gulf of Tonkin and beyond. China and the Philippines, likewise, are preparing to hold their first bilateral maritime talks over their South China Sea disagreements. The discussions are expected to coincide with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's visit to Beijing to attend the Belt and Road Initiative forum. Leaders from 27 other countries, including six Southeast Asian nations, will join Duterte at the forum, where Beijing will demonstrate its commitment to strengthening trade, finance and infrastructure ties throughout Eurasia. The tone China has set in its talks with the Philippines and Vietnam — nations that previously bristled at Beijing's expanding regional role and maritime ambitions — will enhance its efforts to project soft power on the global stage.

Though tensions between China and Southeast Asia have cooled overall, China's recent progress in engaging Vietnam and the Philippines indicates a change in its approach to managing conflict in the South China Sea. For years, Beijing relied on a combination of bilateral discussions and joint mechanisms to settle disputes over fishing or energy exploration in the South China Sea. The strategy, exemplified in its agreement with Vietnam over the Gulf of Tonkin, offered China a way to manage maritime conflicts while also undermining ASEAN's collective power. Beijing has repeatedly expressed hope that the deal, struck in 2000, would serve as a model for future arrangements with the South China Sea's claimants.

In the years since, however, it has had little success with the tactic. Subsequent talks with Hanoi have gotten hung up on the status of the Paracel Islands and on China's claim over the Spratly chain. Other claimants, meanwhile, are wary of entering bilateral arrangements with Beijing, which often makes recognizing its own territorial holdings a condition of the joint mechanisms it proposes. Mistrust of China's intentions has derailed several energy exploration arrangements, including a 2011 deal between the Philippines and the China National Offshore Oil Corp. around Reed Bank.

But Vietnam has taken a more pacific approach to Beijing recently, and the Chinese government may have found a more flexible ally in the current Philippine president. Duterte has continued his efforts to rebalance his country's relationship with China even in the face of domestic pushback. Beijing and Manila have agreed on a tentative plan to share fisheries and conduct joint patrols in the Scarborough Shoal. They also appear to be reconsidering their stalled energy development deal. When the Philippines reinforced its troop presence on Thitu Island in April to counter China's maritime encroachment, moreover, Beijing leveled a relatively benign response.

The situation reflects the countries' current positions. Now that China has achieved many of its goals in the South China Sea, it is reassessing its stance toward the Southeast Asian states. Although it still employs coercive tactics in the disputed waters, and its military presence there remains strong, Beijing has replaced its strategy of aggressive maritime expansion with one that leaves room for cooperation. And, like most countries in the region, the Philippines and Vietnam have taken a fluid approach toward China, adjusting as needed to accommodate their domestic priorities and Southeast Asia's shifting geopolitics.

Still, neither Hanoi nor Manila will simply accept China's increased economic and security role in the region; each would rather the United States retain its position as the guarantor of stability in the Asia-Pacific. Both countries will stand firm in asserting their rights, expanding security ties with other powers and defending their maritime claims. Even if they move forward with some form of agreement in the South China Sea, Vietnam and the Philippines will have myriad issues to navigate in the treacherous waters: skirmishes with foreign fishing fleets, legal and political obstacles, and the risk of alienating the United States by cooperating with China. Similarly, Beijing's fundamental interests in the South China Sea will endure, regardless of what bilateral deals it may strike with Hanoi or Manila. 

In the meantime, as uncertainty colors perceptions of Washington's policy, Beijing's offers of economic and maritime concessions will continue to entice countries in the Asia-Pacific. The new U.S. administration has yet to articulate a clear position on the region and, in fact, has engaged in a limited detente with China as it tries to address the North Korea issue. The ambiguity will prompt ASEAN countries to calculate their next moves as they strive once more to find a balance in their relationships with China and the United States.

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