Chinese Strategic Miscalculations in the South China Sea, by Hoang Anh Tuan
Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 181
Washington, D.C.: East-West Center
September 27, 2012
Hoang Anh Tuan is the Director-General of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
Regrettably, China does not yet recognize the extent to which its aggressive course in the South China Sea is damaging its diplomacy with neighboring countries.
China’s current assertiveness in the South China Sea is now slowly but surely eroding its positive image with its ASEAN neighbors as a peacefully rising power. Without exception, countries within Southeast Asia and beyond are very cautious of China’s rise. Even as China’s national economic and global stature increase, its influence, image and “soft power” abroad is declining dramatically.
China now sees “US hands” in both its internal and external affairs. Examples this year of US influence in China’s domestic affairs include Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s former police chief, applying to the US Consulate in Chengdu for political asylum and the blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, fleeing to the US Embassy in Beijing. Throughout the region, US allies including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines have all upgraded their already strong military cooperation with the United States. If China continues to ignore the interests or concerns of its neighbors who have a stake in the South China Sea, its aggressiveness is likely to galvanize increased regional cooperation with the United States.
Third, troubles with close neighbors also affect the image and position of China in the world. The most important condition for any country aspiring to ascend to global power status is to maintain good relations with its neighbors. However, if China is unable or unwilling to maintain a cordial relationship with its closest neighbors, how can countries further afield trust and respect this aspiring superpower? As long as China is unable to maintain a significant level of trust and friendship with its neighbors, benevolent global power status for China is likely to remain a pipe dream.
First and foremost, China should take constructive steps to bring about an amicable conclusion to negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, and implement a face-saving policy renouncing once and for all its U-shaped line. Obviously, this will be a difficult decision for China to take. However, the international dividend and return for China’s peaceful rise would ripple far beyond the neighborhood and confines of the South China Sea.