BEIJING—China is finding the once-friendly ground of Southeast Asia bumpy going, with anger against Chinese claims to disputed islands, once reliable ally Burma (Myanmar) flirting with democracy and renewed American attention to the region.
The changing terrain for Beijing was on view last week at a conclave of East Asian nations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Wen Jiabao, China’s lame-duck premier who usually exudes a mild, grandfatherly air, got into a sharp exchange over the contested West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) islands.
The leaders of the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam reacted furiously when host Cambodia, an ally of China, suggested that all sides agreed not to bring outside parties into the dispute—a reference to the United States.
President Aquino of the Philippines publicly rebuked Cambodian Premier Hun Sen, saying Association of Southeast Asian (Asean) leaders had no agreement not to “internationalize” the West Philippine Sea disputes with China.
“The Asean route is not the only route for us,” Mr. Aquino said, indicating that the Philippines would pursue a resolution of its dispute with China in accordance with international law. “As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interest,” he said.
US President Barack Obama, buoyed by the first visit ever by an American leader to Burma, projected an image of a confident, friendly America, calling for a reduction in tensions and seemingly taking no sides.
Beijing is struggling to find its feet as its own power grows, but the United States refuses to cede influence in the region, emboldening other countries not to fall in with the Chinese line.
“The robust US presence and relatively disciplined and quiet diplomacy looked strong relative to China’s heavy-handed pressure,” Ernest Bower, chair for Southeast Asian studies at the Council for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, wrote in a commentary on Thursday.
It’s a reversal over the treatment Beijing enjoyed much of the past decade as it wooed Southeast Asia with soaring trade and investment and the lure of the huge Chinese market.
Looking to further those links, Wen held discussions on expanding a free trade agreement to increase China’s imports from Southeast Asia.
China’s economic “pull remains, but the smile has faded,” said Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
Getting Southeast Asian diplomacy right matters to Beijing. It’s an area where China historically exercised great sway. The 10 countries of the Asean are home to a market of 600 million people and straddle vital shipping lanes and seas rich in fish, oil, gas and other minerals.
Beijing’s influence began foundering in 2010 when its more assertive claims to islands in parts of the South China Sea, called West Philippine Sea and East Sea, touched off anxieties among the Philippines and Vietnam, who, along with Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, also claim the islands in whole or in part.
The fracas provided an opening for the United States, which as it wound down involvement in Iraq was reexamining the challenge posed by China. The US “pivot” to Asia brought renewed diplomatic attention to the region and promises of more military resources.
Map on passports
Still, the friction has only increased. Beijing has become more aggressive in patrolling around the disputed islands, leading to a face-off last summer with the Philippines over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea. It is sparring farther afield over other islands with Japan, heightening worries about an expansionist China.
Beijing also started issuing new passports featuring a map that shows the entire South China Sea as Chinese territory. It was a strategy that seemed to force China’s rivals for territory in the sea to recognize its claims. Their stamps on the passports would indicate their recognition of China’s claims that they were disputing.
The Philippines and Vietnam protested the strategy. In the Philippine protest note to China, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario called the strategy an “excessive declaration of maritime space in violation of international law.” Vietnam’s foreign ministry demanded that China “reverse” the passports’ “incorrect content.”
The new China map on the passports also showed disputed territory on the border with India. Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khursid on Saturday said that the Chinese passport map showing India’s Arunachal Prades state and the Himalayan region of Aksai Chin as part of China was “unacceptable.”
India retaliated by starting to issue visas to Chinese citizens with a map of India that includes all territories claimed by New Delhi.
India says China controls 41,440 square kilometers of its territory in Aksai Chin in Kashmir, while China claims that the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which shares a 1,050-kilometer border with the Chinese-run region of Tibet, is rightfully Chinese territory.
India and China fought a brief border war in 1962, and large stretches of the India-China border are still undemarcated.
The tensions bubbled to the fore at last week’s summit of Southeast Asian leaders with the Chinese leadership in Phnom Penh attended by Obama.
President Aquino raised the Panatag Shoal dispute, prompting Wen to state that the islets in the West Philippine Sea have been “Chinese territory since ancient times and no sovereignty dispute exists.”
China’s actions to assert its sovereignty were wholly “appropriate and necessary,” Wen told the closed-door meeting, according to Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying.
Wen’s stern statement was “destructive and dangerous,” wrote CSIS’s Bower. “This is very uncertain ground, and uncertainty means the emergency of an inherent instability in the region that undermines a solid foundation for regional growth.”
Chinese government-backed experts conceded a failure in execution. “Somehow, the issue was not handled very well in the meeting,” said Zhao Gancheng, director of the Center for Southeast Asia at the Shanghai Institute for Foreign Studies.
Economic realities could still work in China’s favor, experts say. Chinese imports from the region grew 29 percent last year to $146 billion, and with its economy expected to overtake America’s as the world’s largest in coming years, China will only grow in importance as a source of overseas investment.
The very fact that China has refused to back off—despite provoking a backlash that could hurt its long-term interests—speaks to Beijing’s belief that its economic pull will ultimately convince its Asean neighbors that their future lies with China, not with the United States, said Princeton’s Friedberg.
“The big question, I think, is whether the Asean states believe that the United States actually has the resolve and the resources to follow through on the commitments that have been made in recent years. If they begin to doubt this they will have to do more to appease Beijing,” Friedberg said.