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"The South China Sea Controversy: The Role of ASEAN, China and the United States"

 Special Lecture: "The Coming Clash with China?"

& Panel Discussion: "The South China Sea Controversy:

The Role of ASEAN, China and the United States"

August 30, 2012, the 4th Flr Conference Room of the Prajadhipok-Rambhaibarni Building, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University 


Moderator: Dr. Pimrapaat Dusadeeisariyakul, Program Manager, Friedrich Naumann Stiftung

Opening Remarks: Dr. Rainer Adam, Regional Director, Friedrich Naumann Stiftung Dr. Adam began

by noting the timeliness of this public forum. While not long ago other issues held precedence, an increase

in the number of incidents in the

South China Sea in recent years has resulted in a corresponding rise in interest among concerned scholars,

journalists, and public officials. He positioned the ensuing talk in terms of the "rediscovery" of Asia by

the United States and the unspoken welcoming of the increased US presence in the region by states other

than China. Throughout the region, Dr. Adam continued, disputes over the South China Sea, East China Sea,

and Kuril Islands provide opportunistic leaders a nationalistic rallying point with which to distract their

constituents from domestic problems and uncertainties. Dr. Adam went on to note the real potential for

the escalation of tensions in the region and the possibility for minor parties to play pivotal roles.

Speaker: Professor Christopher Coker, Professor of International Relations, London School of Economics (LSE)

Professor Coker's lecture focused not on the South China Sea disputes but on the potential for war between the

United States and China, a conflict he said is more likely to be avoided if addressed directly rather than ignored.

Professor Coker compared the contemporary US and China to pre-WWI Britain and Germany respectively.

Unduly influenced by the thinking of overly optimistic economists, prior to the First World War most Europeans

believed that economic interdependence had already made war between great powers an impossibility. In bolstering

his argument, Professor Coker cited economist Paul Krugman's frequent assertion that the world was in fact more

globalized in several important aspects at the turn of the twentieth century than it is today. Still, the notion that

economic globalization has made war between great powers unthinkable presently maintains very strong currency.

Fleshing out the details of his argument, Professor Coker presented a contemporary US struggling to come to terms

with its relative decline. This is in contrast to pre- 2 WWI Britain's acceptance and successful management of its

fading status as the preeminet power. Britain, Professor Coker implies, was in fact comparatively better attuned to

reality in this regard than is the present day US. China, in turn, with its rapid transition from a rural agrarian society

to a developed industrial one, bears a striking resemblance to pre-WWI Germany. There is no convincing reason,

Professor Coker concluded, to believe that war between China and the United States cannot happen. According to

Professor Coker, some other factors that could potentially push the US and China toward conflict with each other

include: China • Rising nationalism and the impatience of military leadership with both the slow rate of US decline

and perceived inactivity on the part of civilian Chinese leadership in hastening this decline. The growing role of the

military in China is without precedent in historical China. It in some ways mirrors the privileged position and resentment

displayed by the pre-WWI German military. • Factions within China who wish to see the recreation of the Sinosphere

and the realization of past Chinese greatness. • The difficulty China may have in evaluating its own power. China has

a low per capita GDP and low human development index rating; great wealth and poverty exist side by side. • The difficulty

confronted by China in translating its power into influence if it continues to exist outside of the "networked" world the US

is pursuing. • How may China exercise its power responsibly when it is unfamiliar with it? How may it share power with

others in the form of alliances with which it has little experience historically? How may China learn to conserve its power

in guarding against over stretch? US • Can the US successfully manage its relative, as opposed to absolute, decline?

Can its leaders think strategically? Evidence suggests US foreign policy planners have insufficient knowledge of how to

achieve their stated aims. • Is the US policy of managing China's rise (as opposed to containment) by facilitating China's entry

into international organizations such as the WTO sustainable in the longterm? • Continued US belief in the validity of war

as a vehicle for social and economic progress as recently exemplified by the neoconservatives and the Iraq War. 3 •

The powerful political and economic constituency that is the US military. The military-industrial complex represents

a major sector of the US economy. Military strength is of increased importance to countries in a state of decline.

Other important factors • The role of arms races and balance of military power in maintaining the international system.

The international system is complex and beyond the ability of computer modeling to successful predict.

Meltdowns occur quickly. If a rising China destabilizes the system will the US have the power to achieve regularity? •

That great powers inevitably go to war seems supported by history, but does this hold true outside the West? •

Optimism and misplaced faith in human rationality. The tendency of experts to overestimate their own abilities. •

Thermonuclear war seems less likely than more morally defensible and less materially destructive means of conflict

which might take place in cyberspace and outer space. • The importance of contingency: Unforeseen crises in other

parts of the world and the actions of individuals humanbeings cannot help but have bearing on US-China relations.

Panelist: Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand Mr. Kavi found Professor Coker's arguments

about the potential for US-China conflict convincing and suggested that Southeast Asia may be currently existing

in a kind of "dreamworld." Mr. Kavi went on to emphasize the changed political landscape and role of ASEAN

after the so-called Phnom Penh incident:1 Before July 2012 • In 1995 ASEAN, as a unified and small body,

produced a joint statement expressing concern over the South China Sea.2 1 For the first time in its 45-year history

ASEAN failed to issue a joint communique at the annual summit that took place in Phnom Penh in July 2012.

At issue was Cambodia's rejection of language referring to the respective disputes of Vietnam and the Philippines

with China over exclusive economic zones and the Scarborough Shoal. 2 A document featuring a chronological

list of ASEAN statements on the South China Sea is available

at: 4

• Major powers exhibited a "benign" relationship toward ASEAN and did not take it seriously. US officials,

for example, were seen as displaying a palpable lack of interest. After July 2012 • ASEAN no longer has unity

and the so-called "ASEAN way" of consensus is contested. Joint communiques, formerly viewed with general

disinterest, will from now on be read eagerly by journalists. • Bilateral relationships between individual members

and China have created disunity and a statement like the one which was issued in 1995 is no longer possible. •

The role of the rotational chair has become more important. What will China and ASEAN leaders say on the tenth

anniversary of the proposed Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC)? • ASEAN has been forced

into a "new mode." It can no longer function as a "fulcrum" for major powers. Instead, it may act as an "air traffic

controller deciding when and which major powers can land." Other considerations according to Mr. Kavi •

Professor Coker's take on China-US relations offers a wake-up call to the potential for conflict for those in Asia who

wish to believe the US and China are working together at the highest levels. Conversely, ASEAN may actually view this

antagonism positively owing to the fear of US-China collusion in the region at the expense of smaller states. •

ASEAN members tend to welcome renewed US interest as providing balance to China. • ASEAN should ensure the US is

engaged in the rise of regional architecture along with India and especially Russia. • Peacekeeping has been a common

endeavor of ASEAN members, but they have so far failed to "fly the ASEAN flag" or further the ASEAN brand in such cases.

• The South China Sea disputes can be viewed as having provided a test that ASEAN has failed on. • ASEAN must make

sure it can actually enforce any regional COC. • If work on the COC drags on, it can be viewed as a positive because at least

it will entail dialogue between states. 5 Panelist: Mr. Robert W. Fitts, Director, American Studies Program Though tasked

with presenting the US view, Mr. Fitts made the point that understanding American interests pertaining to the South China Sea

first requires understanding those of China. With that in mind, he suggested it may be more appropriate to speak in terms

of the resumption of Chinese preeminence rather than the rise of China. Mr. Fitts agreed with Professor Coker's characterization

of current US policy toward China as one of cooperation rather than containment. With Dr. Adam, he suggested the various

disputes throughout the broader Asia region involving rights to sea usage and ownership of minor islands were generally attempts

by the governments involved to offset domestic instability and bolster nationalist credentials. Turning to the South China Sea,

Mr. Fitts observed that though most of the minor landforms involved were of little strategic value China views the South China

Sea as a natural extension of its territory. Nationalism figures prominently in the motivations of other claimants as well.

Mr Fitts went on to highlight key US interests: • The US wishes to see respect paid to international law by all parties.

Though for domestic reasons the US has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it has abided by its contents

since the Clinton Administration. • Recent incidents do in fact disturb the US. The United States has a longstanding interest

in freedom of navigation. A vast quantity of oil is shipped through the South China Sea and thus its shipping lanes are of

global significance. • The US has trading partners and allies in the region. It has a fundamental concern with security and

stability in Southeast Asia as it does throughout the world. Mr. Fitts continued on to make the following points: • Increase

of US naval power in the Pacific will take some time and does not mean much in practical terms. • The US must be careful

about being too aggressive in its renewed presence. Conversely, United States Senator Jim Webb is correct in his observation

that Chinese aggression cannot go unchecked. • The Hainan Island Incident of April 2001provides a compelling example

of how a single unplanned event can have major repercussions for relations between states. • No Southeast Asian nation

wishes to have to choose between China and the US. • Aggressive campaign rhetoric from the Republican Party is for

domestic consumption. Should he win election, a hypothetical Romney Administration would have to come to terms

with the complex, mutualy dependent relationship between the US and China just as the Bush Administration quickly

did. 6 • Regional issues are not likely to be resolved through negotiation and continued growth all but guarantees

increasing tensions in the region. Panelist: Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director, ISIS Thailand Dr. Thitinan began his

comments by mentioning a 1993 article titled "Ripe for Rivalry"3 by Aaron Friedberg which now seems to have been

prescient. Since the end of the Cold War the entire Asia region has undergone many postive developments:

Regionalism has expanded enormously and economic dynamism has given birth to the celebrated notion of the

"Asian Century." Until the last several years things looked peaceful. Though Asia remains the most dynamic

region for the foreseeable future, growing rivalries have now created interlocking security concerns, and the logic

of conflict has taken on elements of self-fulfilling escalation. How did this happen is the rhetorical question

Dr. Thitinan posed. According to Dr. Thitinan, the immediate cause can be traced to about 2009 when Vietnam

and Malaysia filed continental shelf claims and China began using a controversial map claiming ownership of most

of the South China Sea. The following were among the points Dr. Thitinan went on to make: • Though Indonesia

will continue to try to promote unity within ASEAN, future chairmanship by Brunei and Myanmar does not bode

well for cooperation. This ironically comes at a time when ASEAN aims at the establishment of an ASEAN Economic

Community by 2015. • With a leadership transition in China and the presidential election in the United States, neither

will want to appear weak on the issue of the South China Sea. In case of the election of Mitt Romney, the possible

selection of neoconservative Eliot Cohen for a top State Department position does not bode well for the avoidance

of conflict. • The legitimacy of the claims of a given country to parts of the South China Sea depend on what historical

period is examined. The region lacks effective institutions to deal with the issue. • The US is driven by a military-industrial

complex whose budget dwarfs that of any other country. The Chinese will naturally spend more on defense as their

economy continues to grow. • The shipping lanes of the South China Sea have become crowded and energy resources

potentially found there become increasingly important as states deplete their other supplies. • ASEAN has reached a

sticking point with the South China Sea. The Philippines probably "overplayed its hand" in July and needs to step back.

This November will 3

Available at:

7 be key to whether ASEAN can regain legitimacy over the next few years. This loss of legitimacy has effects on

related vehicles such as ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, South Korea). Professor Coker At this point Professor Coker

responded to some of the comments made by panelists: • ASEAN tends to provide narrative coherence. As a "community"

rather then "talking shop" it would increase cooperation though not consensus. Institutions may shape the way people

see the world and even create values. • The US is a Western country but also an Asian power by virtue of the accident

of its geographic position. China must come to accept the Western tendency of US leaders to use confrontation as a

means of getting parties to the bargaining table. • China's unwillingness to take on global responsibilities makes US

acceptance of China as global power more difficult than it would be otherwise.

Question & Answer Session

Q1) What policy should Thailand implement to best balance the US and China?

Q2) What will be the first signal of US-China conflict and what will ASEAN do? Mr. Kavi: Thailand's foreign

policy needs rebalancing. Historically Thailand has aimed at siding with whoever the winner was likely to be.

However, Thailand can no longer sit on the fence. Obscurantism can no longer serve the national interest in this

new political landscape. Strategic ambiguity will not work in a post-Cold War environment. Thailand's policy

should operate on a case by case basis. The US perceives Thailand as being in the pocket of the Chinese and vice

versa. Mr. Fitts: In agreement with Mr. Kavi, Thailand has to avoid choosing between the US and China but

should make the legitimate interests it has on both sides clear to both sides. Dr. Thitinan: Thai domestic political

problems have contributed to its foreign policy malaise. In the past Thailand would have taken a leadership role

in the South China Sea disputes. Thailand, despite its military relationship with the US, is closer to Beijing. In some

ways Thailand is more beholden to the Chinese. This can be played to Thailand's advantage. Strategic ambiguity

has to be well planned. Professor Coker: Nationalism is a new factor in China. The military will have increased

importance relative to the Communist Party of China. Historically, there is no tradition of militarism in China.

Political elites have always controlled the military. Several recent international incidents are the result of the

military acting unbeknownst to important sections of the government. An impatient military 8 unhappy with a

government it perceives as not standing up for China could have repercussions. In a hypothetical war, China would

aim to turn off US satellites but currently lacks the ability to do so. In terms of nuclear weapons, the US has gotten

over its hawkishness in that regard. Will China do the same?

Q3) What is the likely future for a legally binding agreement on the South China Sea? What is likely to happen

when ASEAN meets again in November?

Q4) Will Japan's sale of patrol vessels to the Phillipines and Vietnam be interpreted negatively by Beijing?

Dr. Thitinan: No ones knows how the next several months will pan out. July has set parameters and states

will not reverse their positions suddenly. If a joint decision is reached it will be a diluted one. The goal will be to

buy time until next year and beyond. China has been very clear about its position and Cambodia is beholden to China.

Japan can reasonably be said to have been shortchanged relative to the investments it has made in the region

and is now upstaged by China. The sale of patrol vessels to the Philippines and Vietnam may promote balance unless

it comes to be seen as a deliberate provocation. Mr. Kavi: Japan has long played second fiddle to the US in the region.

Now Japan is attempting to reposition its relationship with ASEAN in terms of security rather than solely economics.

All ASEAN countries has close bilateral relationships with China. Japan's relationships with the countries of ASEAN

are much less comprehensive.