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China needs to adjust its diplomatic approach to win the battle for Southeast Asia and the South China Sea

By Mark J.Valencia | NISCSS | Updated: 2021-07-20 14:25
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China's behaviour in the South China Sea was high on the agenda at the June 15 and 16 Asean Defence Ministers and the Asean Defence Ministers Plus meetings.

China's fishing and coastguard incursions into Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), its massing of fishing and maritime militia boats in waters claimed by the Philippines, a new law authorising its coastguard to use force, and its provocations in waters claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia, are all of concern to rival claimants.

The focus of the meetings was yet another sign that if China does not recalibrate its approach, it might lose the recent diplomatic ground it has gained in Southeast Asia.

Beijing has made some diplomatic advances, the latest being the June 7-8 meetings between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Association of Southeast Asian Nations counterparts-both as a group and bilaterally-in Chongqing. According to Wang, they agreed to resolve disputes through dialogue, exercise self-restraint and avoid unilateral actions that would exacerbate conflicts. China has even proposed to elevate their relationship to a "comprehensive strategic partnership".

President Xi Jinping has communicated with some Southeast Asian leaders, and Wang has travelled through the region and met his counterparts in person. The foreign ministers of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines also visited China for bilateral talks in late March.

China has clearly made inroads with its Belt and Road Initiative, too, despite warnings of debt traps, environmental damage and coercion. Its diplomacy during the Covid-19 pandemic has been successful, donating vaccines and even working with Indonesia to produce more.

But its aggressive actions and inept diplomacy have undermined trust and pushed some Southeast Asian countries towards the United States for protection. These diplomatic blunders have provided ammunition for the US effort to politically isolate and constrain China's behaviour.

Under US leadership and persistent prodding, a loose coalition of democracies is forming against what they consider China's unacceptable domestic abuses and its coercive action, especially in the South China Sea. The Group of 7 and Nato, the transatlantic security alliance, have condemned its behaviour.

The Quad-an informal strategic grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia-is gaining momentum and might even expand. The coordination of Western military signalling in the South China Sea has also increased.

China has belatedly recognised the danger. Ambassador to France Lu Shaye, one of China's "wolf warrior" diplomats, has said: "The public opinion war is a strength of the West but a weakness for us."

i recently told the Politburo that China needs "to tell its story better and win the struggle to be more lovable". "It is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority and constantly expand the circle of friends [when it comes to] international opinion," he said.

China can still prevail in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. It has the advantage of geographic proximity and the aura of inevitability. Moreover, although it might try, the West cannot match China's economic prowess. Instead, it hopes that its political, social and economic systems and-more importantly-its values will be sufficient to keep much of Asia in its camp.

US President Joe Biden said, "I think we're in a contest not with China per se but a contest with autocratic governments around the world as to whether democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century". The Global Times, which is said to reflect the thinking of Chinese officials, has accused the West of "playing the ideology and values card".

So the soft power contest between China and the West is becoming one between Western values and its provision of security versus China's economic clout. The West has made human rights and democratic values its stock-in-trade and a dominant part of its foreign policy in Asia.

That is what distinguishes Western democracies from many other countries, especially China, but US values could be losing their appeal. The hallmarks of its democracy appear to be a shambles. American democracy is in the throes of an ugly, cultural conflict that has made it seem dysfunctional. China can argue that, in contrast, it is stable.

China's domestic values do not offer an attractive alternative, but most Southeast Asian countries do not care how China treats its own citizens. Some are just as authoritarian and draconian, and they also resent US criticism of their governing style. Playing to this sentiment, Wang has said, "We support Asean in upholding the principle of non-interference in internal affairs".

China has shown it can repair its diplomatic damage if it wants to. For example, China's intrusions into Indonesia's EEZ threatened to provoke nationalistic responses in Indonesia, which could be a dangerous development. However, Beijing has adjusted its behaviour and tension has given way to warming ties. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has referred to China as a "good friend and brother".

Earlier this month, China and Indonesia initiated an "inaugural high-level dialogue". Usually very sensitive about its maritime security, Indonesia accepted China's offer to try to salvage its lost submarine in the Lombok Strait. It has also undertaken naval exercises with China off the coast of Jakarta. This is remarkable because allowing US naval vessels to pass by its capital has been a sticking point in Indonesia's negotiations over delineating a sea lane in the Java Sea.

If China wants to win the long-term struggle for Southeast Asia, it needs to do more of the same-lighten up, avoid diplomatic mistakes, be more patient and conciliatory and play its powerful hand more carefully.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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