Trouble in the South China Sea – by Bonnie Glaser | Foreign Policy

17 September 2012

China’s behavior in the South China Sea is deliberate and systematic — it is not the unintentional result of bureaucratic politics and poor coordination. In fact, its aggressive actions in recent monthssuggest, in the words of Center for a New American Security fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro, “exemplary interagency coordination, civil-military control, and harmonization of its political, economic and military objectives.” The clear pattern of bullying and intimidation is evidence of a top leadership decision to escalate China’s coercive diplomacy. This has implications not only for the Philippines and Vietnam, the primary targets of China’s coercive efforts, but also for all parties with an interest in the region, including the United States.

First, China’s propensity to flout international law and norms sets a worrisome standard going forward. Beijing deliberately refused to abide by its verbal agreement with Manila to withdraw all its ships from the lagoon and the area around Scarborough Shoal, establishing a new status quo that favors Chinese interests. China is maintaining regular patrols and preventing Filipino fisherman from fishing in those waters. No country — including the United States — has publicly condemned this action. This has set a dangerous precedent for future negotiations.

Second, China appears increasingly willing to throw around its economic weight to coerce countries to modify their policies. Beijing’s move to quarantine imported tropical fruit from the Philippines to pressure it to cede control over the Scarborough Shoal was a flagrant breach of international norms. To cover up this latest bit of economic coercion, Chinese customs officials cited baseless claims that the fruit was infested. The Philippines economy suffered immediate harm since the country exports nearly one-third of its banana crop to China, as well as papayas, pineapples, mangoes, and coconuts. In addition, Chinese travel agencies cancelled tourist charter flights to the Philippines on the grounds that the safety of Chinese tourists was endangered by “anti-China demonstrations.”

This episode is but one example of China’s growing penchant for economic coercion. In September 2010, Beijing blocked shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan in retaliation for Tokyo’s detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler in an incident near the Senkaku Islands. Later that year, following the announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, China took a series of steps to punish Norway — even though the decision to whom to award the prize is made by the Nobel Committee, which is independent from the Norwegian government. China froze free-trade negotiations with Oslo and imposed new veterinary inspections on imports of Norwegian salmon. These regulations resulted in a 60 percent cut in Norway’s salmon imports in 2011, even as the Chinese salmon market grew by 30 percent. Beijing also halted normal diplomatic interaction with Norway, which it has yet to resume.

Beijing views these cases as diplomatic successes. If China’s economic coercion continues to go unchallenged, such tactics will undoubtedly be used again and again. China is thus likely to have sway over a growing number of nations whose economies are increasingly dependent on trade with China.

Third, China’s rejection of a rules-based framework that would restrain the actions of all parties should be a cause for concern. Beijing calculates that time is on its side — why should it sign binding agreements now, when its leverage is only poised to grow? In the future, China will not only be a major economic power, but also a major political and military power. Other nations, large and small, will be compelled to adapt to China’s rise and to respect, in the jargon of Beijing’s diplomats, China’s “core interests and major concerns.” Given Beijing’s unwillingness to adhere to a code of conduct and its complete lack of interest in accommodating the interests of other nations, the use of military force by claimants to protect their interests cannot be ruled out.

China’s pattern of assertive behavior on issues related to sovereignty will likely continue after the country’s leadership transition takes place at the 18th Party Congress this autumn, and the National People’s Congress next spring. These transitions of power in China only happen once every decade, and the coming one is particularly important – the next generation of leaders in Beijing will oversee a period where China’s power is likely to expand significantly, and will determine whether that rise is peaceful.

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