“Are you going to Scarborough Shoal? China, Phils, Vietnam and Brunei …”
Simon & Garfunkel sang different lyrics for their 1960s hit “Scarborough Fair,” a song that had nothing to do with Asian geopolitics. That didn’t stop one Filipino lounge singer from turning it into a protest song about rising tensions in the South China Sea on a recent evening in Manila for his martini-sipping audience.
Such strains are anything but music to the ears of world leaders, who already have enough to worry about. So how about adding a little diplomatic and military tension in Asia to the mix?
The brawl between China and the Philippines over ownership of a reef known as the Scarborough Shoal — the scene of armed patrols and a source of a daily war of words — is but the loudest of the moment. Asia features various territorial disputes involving Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan, with China at the center of almost all of them. The South China Sea is now the scene of one of the more serious feuds between officials in Washington and Beijing.
China views a number of islands and tiny rocks, some believed to have vast energy deposits, as its own. Its vague claims and assertive behavior are unnerving its Asian neighbors. So much so that officials from Hanoi to Tokyo are surprisingly receptive to President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia. That infuriates China, which wants the United States to mind its own business. For America, it’s an opportunity to regain a foothold in the world’s most dynamic region and flaunt its bona fides as a peacekeeper.
It is worth considering how ugly things could get very quickly. Six months ago, it would have seemed hyperbolic to warn of armed clashes on the region’s seas. Yet the steady ratcheting-up of hostilities between China and other Asian governments, fueled by an increasingly noxious nationalism, suggests this “black swan” risk can no longer be ignored.
“While the likelihood of major conflict remains low, all of the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing,” the International Crisis Group warned in a July 24 report.
All this threatens to overwhelm ties between the United States and China at a time when cooperation between these two superpowers has never been more important. This week, China’s state media fired a new rhetorical salvo, telling the United States to “shut up” and stop “fanning the flames.” China is livid over comments by one of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deputies criticizing the Chinese government for sending a “seriously wrong signal” to Asian nations. China is establishing a city and military garrison in another group of atolls, the Paracel Islands, and plans to physically block foreign access to a disputed reef off the coast of the Philippines. Taiwan and Vietnam also claim sovereignty over the islands.
The question is how to keep these tensions from imperiling the Asian Century. The only answer is a regional agreement. This issue can’t be dealt with bilaterally. China isn’t about to give up its claims and now has the economic and military power to enforce them. Nor are officials in neighboring capitals about to give in. The United States can huff and puff, but it has little direct leverage in Asia these days.
What’s needed is a face-saving way to share resources jointly and devise an enforceable code of conduct for the seas. That’s only possible on a regional basis. China will only respect a show of diplomatic force — nations joining together, with the backing of the United States if needed. A new forum is required, as well. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a multinational shop, but it is as toothless as it is disjointed.
China doesn’t play fair on a bilateral level and probably never will. Look no further than last month’s Asean meeting. For the first time in 45 years, Asean’s members couldn’t agree on a joint communique. China, which isn’t an Asean member, objected to any reference to territorial disputes.
Cambodia, which holds the bloc’s rotating chairmanship, did China’s bidding by leaving the most important issue facing Asia on the cutting-room floor.
Impoverished Cambodia relies on billions of dollars of Chinese aid, and knows well China’s propensity for economic blackmail. The Philippines’ firm stance against China in the dispute, for example, has impeded trade between the nations. China blocked shipments of rare-earth materials to Japan after a Chinese fishing trawler clashed with Japanese ships in contested waters.
It threatened to scrap free-trade agreement talks with Norway after the Nobel Committee honored jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
China may not know, or even care, that it is squandering a decade of public-relations success in Asia. The country skillfully exploited the United States’ distractions after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, pumping aid, economic growth and goodwill into the void. Now ham-handed diplomacy is costing it credibility and influence, prompting other nations to rally around the United States
Asian leaders should join hands, put aside the anger and find a collective solution. Forgive me, but it’s the only way the region can build a bridge over troubled water.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist