The future and fate of the Code of Conduct (CoC) remain a critical geostrategic pursuit and interests of the region, further amplified by the ongoing ASEAN Summit and the impact on the dealings of the CoC. The recent proposal to limit the negotiations with the claimant-only approach gives new fear and openings to different parties. For China, it presents fresh avenues for its regional intent. By dealing with the claimants only in the progress of the Code of Conduct (CoC), Beijing can use it as a tailor-made approach to better strengthen its chips and cards and to gain better leverage based on the individual grip on the states involved. All the claimant parties have ingrained reliance on China, which Beijing is wise and strategic to capitalize on through this divide-and-conquer approach.
The overarching purpose of CoC for Beijing’s long-term returns is to strengthen its moral cause and soft power amplification, especially in showing to the West and the world that on the surface, China is walking the talk in its narration of the peaceful approach and diplomacy in dispute management. It will be used then to pin the blame on the West, pointing out how it uses the region and the players as pawns and turning the region into a grand chessboard of containing China. Beijing realizes this is needed to remedy China’s image, which is tainted by its ignorance of rules-based order and the non-recognition of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in dismissing its claim in 2016.
Beijing will need the CoC as a cover and a distraction, for it to continue its power projection activities and the militarization of the Sea, knowing that the CoC will not provide a clear pushback and deterrence to its core activity of militarizing the disputed area credibly and effectively. In the end, even if the CoC is somehow turned into a legally binding document, Beijing will find little incentive to fully adhere to it. If China can ignore the Hague ruling, the CoC will not pose a bigger problem for Beijing to flout if necessary.
Nothing will stop its militarisation of the South China Sea, owing to two critical factors at the forefront of China’s future strategy and survival. Trapped by rival powers in its Eastern front led by Tokyo and sieged by Washington, China needs the South China Sea as a crucial naval opening and gateway for it to expand its Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capacity and also to deny Washington and possibly Quad’s power projection. With the AUKUS and greater military empowerment of the Quad in mind, the South China Sea is also needed to break the future military supply chain and support from the south, particularly from Australia in the event of a conflict and a Taiwanese invasion. The sea is also needed as a second front support platform for Beijing’s Pacific expansionist power projection dream, while at the same time holding off challenges from other Western containing powers including Britain and Germany and potential disruptions from Tokyo. Nothing concrete and hampering rulings are expected from the CoC, giving a free hand for Beijing not to lose its already established progress made in the region.
Beijing’s calculations include the inevitability of needing the buy-in and soft power ground to provide both carrot and stick for the regional peers and rival claimant states. For now, Beijing will need to stall and buy time to get tacit support and kowtow to the demands and expectations by Beijing from the players involved, all the while continuing its hard power progress in the region.
The prevailing aspect remains on which side has the greater patience and urgency, whether the affected states or China. For Beijing, it faces a time trap of urgency, as it will need to face with a resurgent and resilient West led by the US, contrary to conventional predictions that America’s power parity will diminish in leading up to its unification of Taiwan, as made more prevalent now as espoused by Xi in his opening address to the Congress this week. Taiwan’s unification is sealed, most likely by force, where peaceful and willing transfer of autonomy remains distant. For this, the South China Sea is the critical front for the full invasion and blockade needed. As Xi pointed out, Cross Strait unification is an inevitability, where force will be used if all else fails.
This direct bilateral and targeted approach will give Beijing returns in the sphere of counter-attacking impact on the West. Beijing will shape the narrative that if the US tries to mold the claimant state’' policy behavior to stand up more to Beijing, it will be cast as a hypocritical measure by Washington in interference and dictation of policies. If Beijing is to deal with ASEAN as a group or a mechanism, Beijing would not have the reason to cast the blame or narrative because a regional grouping’s capacity is different from individual states in charting norms and receiving external support. Beijing would have more grounds in deterring US influence when it involves direct dealing with the individual players.
By divide and rule, the deterrence effect is lesser from the claimant states, and conversely, China will have more deterrence impact and grip on the claimants. Beijing is capitalizing on the reality that the US is not able to change its entrenched bilateral grip on each of the individual states, and will fully seize on that push for individual negotiations or a claimant-only platform dialogue.
Having failed to have a bilateral approach, Beijing sees Manila as an apt opening for it to limit the negotiations to only the claimant parties, reducing the future challenges and barriers stemming from a broader scope.
If ASEAN comes into the picture in the CoC, Beijing is wary of Indonesia dictating the direction and pace, and Jakarta’s intention is seen suspiciously by Beijing as to project and regain its regional leadership and to galvanize ASEAN to push back further against Beijing’s desire. Jakarta’s capital relocation move and the broader strategic goals of reorienting the geopolitical calculations of the trade route including the future potential and opening of the Sunda Strait and the Celebes Sea, all put Jakarta in the next spotlight of vital geostrategic fulcrum in the eyes of Beijing.
It is Beijing’s turn now to maintain a strategic ambiguity approach so that it can continue to enjoy the privilege of being flexible in its enforcement of various carrot and stick measures and in changing the tone of the approaches according to the adherence and responses of the states involved.
In continuing the direct bilateral approach, Beijing also intends to send an indirect message to other disputing states in East Asia particularly Tokyo and Seoul, that Beijing is not keen for them to bank on the regional architecture including the Quad, or interference by the US in strengthening their baggage and claims regarding the Senkaku or Yellow Sea disputes.
The message is also intended for the Pacific nations, that Beijing is hopeful for a targeted and bilateral dialogue and support system that is tailor-made to the specific needs and conditions of the particular nation, rather than dealing with a broader grouping such as the Pacific Islands Forum or other collective efforts that involve pressures and ultimatums by the US.
For now, the CoC is used as a cover to project Beijing’s power image and moral card as it quietly and speedily continues its military build-up, now hastened and reinforced by the Ream port in Cambodia that will provide crucial second-line support for its South China Sea ambition.
The South China Sea serves as a watershed frontline decider for the future of global engagement and in ensuring that all nations play by the same fair rules, not being selectively molded to the needs and demands of a few. By excluding other players in this CoC management, especially key regional players and ASEAN, will only create a tiered priority and level of regional cohesiveness, already severely weakened by Beijing’s strategic moves in the region and ASEAN’s ineffectiveness itself. By leaving out other players, these players will find greater countermeasures and defensive moves to content with existing and future rifts and disputes involving China, aligning more with external powers and in an unchecked build-up of more assertive hard power measures to deal with China’s consistent bellicose measures. This will worsen the already declining deterrence impact and consistently rising arms race and militarisation of foreign policy tools. It will also intensify polarisation within ASEAN, and extend the opening and status quo for Beijing to exploit.
For Malaysia, it knows that it will need to look effective in a three-pronged spectrum of firstly, standing up to China and protecting its sovereignty and regional interests, secondly, to be seen as capably breaking out of its Chinese dogma and trap for its internal and Western audiences, and thirdly, to reaffirm its ASEAN aspirations and to provide real solutions and peaceful approach to the decades-old South China Sea issue. All three measures have failed to yield the desired outcome, still trapped by its directionless and futile effort to tackle the Chinese policy trap and dilemma. Years of ineffective China policy and reliance on quiet and backdoor diplomacy have laid bare the ill-equipped long-term capacity in Malaysia’s arsenal in dealing with Beijing. This translates to continuous Malaysia's trap in having no choice but to support the move of the claimant-only consultation, both for the three-pronged factor and the need to ensure its economic survival by not risking the Beijing-Kuala Lumpur economic ties.
Regardless of any ruling government that will be churned out by the impending general election, the policy in facing China and ASEAN is expected to remain, as the local internal demands and needs for economic survival are too ingrained for any abrupt changes. China remains inevitable in the projections and political expediency and survival of any ruling party.
For the Philippines, it now sees that its long-term survival measure is to be like Malaysia, in playing to both sides, do not antagonize one or the other, and constantly seek Beijing’s assurances. The new leadership in Manila is gambling on the medium-term returns from this, realizing that China is here to stay geographically which compels the need to safeguard Manila’s first line of defense and interests. Manila sees that in the post-war era should conflict be inevitable, it will need China’s long-term goodwill to reset the ties and orientation and Washington is unable to provide the long-term assurances and geopolitical realities that Manila faces.
Even with committed US support in the event of a direct confrontation, the rebuilding efforts during the post-conflict era will need China‘s participation and influence, which Manila cannot do without.
Knowing that it will be the first to face the full brunt of a full forceful takeover of Taiwan, Manila will not risk upsetting the apple cart by becoming too pandering to Washington which will risk it being drawn into the Taiwan conflict as becoming clear China’s target, as Japan will be in the war on Taiwan.
In imitating Malaysia’s approach, Manila tries to be wise and strategic in not opting for a direct confrontational style with Beijing which will only squeeze Manila’s options, and in using this approach in prodding Washington to commit more to its long-term needs and only confined to defensive support on accord alone.
Manila faces limited strategic opening and will need this new move that will please China, and that by raising this prospect at the ASEAN Summit, Manila will secure a two-pronged win. Firstly, it will be able to reinforce its gesture and message of reconciliation to Beijing, while at the same time sending a clear message to Washington that it stands at a greater solicitation and bargaining table with higher leverage and cards. Secondly, it provides Manila with a new quid pro quo capacity and advantage in dealing with ASEAN and in creating new push for rivaling internal blocs and partisanship within ASEAN. In getting the new backing and alignment with Beijing’s interests, polarization internally in ASEAN will be heightened, with the enhancement to the pro-China alignments and in facing the greater resistance level led by Indonesia.
Other ASEAN members that are not involved in the dispute, namely Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia will be caught in a dilemma, as they will not want to upset Beijing if they are not agreeable to this new proposal of a claimant-only setting, but at the same time, they will need to be seen as a worthy partner in the grouping’s collective efforts to solve the issue. All these three countries will not risk anything to upset the status quo and the apple cart and will be projected to express an open approach to this idea with the intention for this to provide mutual returns to all parties, including their wider interests.
The hard truth and reality are that China will not give up its dominance and progress made in the South China Sea and that Beijing is projecting its strategic approach decades ahead. Its current quest for a claim for up to 90% of the Sea through the Nine Dash Line will not be tolerated for anything less, and that the only room or openings will be the methods used to deal with the claimant states. Beijing will choose the best mechanisms for the dispute in a way where the rivals or the claimant states will present the least long-term challenge and resistance to Beijing. Both China and the claimant states realize that ASEAN is trapped with its own dogma of centrality, and that moving forward, ASEAN will need to preserve this status quo. The status quo of being central and non-aligned will give greater openings for Beijing, but the nature of having to deal with a regional grouping will provide other rigid barriers and interference from external interests.
The ongoing ASEAN Summit now might just provide the last opening for Beijing to project its wants and get the right nod, for when Indonesia takes over for 2023, it might face greater pushback that will derail its immediate goals for the region and the South China Sea.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.