Last update 7/19/2011 10:15:00 AM (GMT+7)

Engaging China in the East Sea
The issue of the South China Sea (East Sea) again drew public attention last month. The overlapping claims over a body of water located south of the People’s Republic of China between six countries — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and China itself — has become a serious strategic concern because it involves a regional rising power whose attitude and intentions remain in the shadows despite years of interaction with the international community.

To complicate things, the conflict almost certainly will be a magnet for the involvement of the United States as a global power.

What is interesting to look at in this conflict is how the adversaries perceive China’s attitude toward the case, which in turn will determine how they will respond and choose the best mechanism in managing the conflict.

As a rising power, China has attracted the interest and curiosity from many, including policy-makers and scholars. One of the biggest concerns regarding China’s rise is what kind of new power it will become, and what kind of behavior it will show once it has become one.

In 2007, Avery Goldstein proposed two alternatives to explain the rise of China. The first one sees China’s rise as a possible way toward a power transition, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. Quoting the hegemonic stability theory, this argument sees that China’s rise might indicate that the country is progressing toward replacing the US’ role as a regional — or even global — hegemon.

In the case of East Sea dispute, such a perspective sees it as China’s efforts to get out of the security architecture in the region which has always been under the US’ security umbrella. One might see China’s long-term strategy as developing its blue water navy as a strong indicator of this future projection.

On the other hand, Goldstein also proposes a more optimistic view of China’s rise. This outlook does not necessarily believe that China is undergoing a completely peaceful rise, but it negates the fear that most countries experience toward the Asian giant.

It is argued that despite its often hard stance on certain issues, including territorial sovereignty, recent development shows that China has been willing to engage in several multilateral mechanisms and institutions. People see China’s accession to the WTO as a significant event that supports such arguments.

Toward ASEAN, China’s eagerness to be engaged in multilateral mechanisms can be seen for instance by acceding to the Treaty of Amity of Cooperation (TAC) in 2003, the first among the major countries. One year before, it also ensured its conformity to the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) regarding the East Sea dispute.

Non-legally binding as they may be, the signing of both the TAC and DOC indicates China’s good will to create a stable and peaceful region.

Despite having no legal obligation toward the arrangements, China indeed has a political responsibility to act in accordance to what they have previously agreed.

In less formal situations, China has also participated in a series of workshops on the East Sea by sending scholars and officials.

With the two paradigms on the table, it is now up to ASEAN to decide which to believe, and in turn, act in accordance. It appears from the current situation, however, that ASEAN’s stance is ambivalent. There is a notable gap between ASEAN’s position as a group, and individual policies of its members.

As a group, ASEAN has been trying to engage China in multilateral mechanisms, as previously mentioned. The organizational stance is to solve the problem through political and peaceful ways.

Once again, it is up to ASEAN countries, particularly the claimants, which option they will choose. Nonetheless, the smart choice is to continue engaging China in multilateral arrangements while restraining themselves from doing provocative actions in the disputed area.