17.04.2014 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The Situation in Southeast Asia in light of the Crimean Crisis

546433The international political and expert community is just beginning to awake from the shock raised by the situation in Crimea. Independent of further development of the Ukrainian crisis on the whole, the Crimean situation in itself deserves scrutiny at political, diplomatic, military and various “specialized” roundtables worldwide. These events will go down in history as the model of a complex and effective solution to a long but suddenly and unexpectedly intensified state problem, reached under highly risky conditions.

The events that took place in Crimea are, in fact, already being discussed – and from a practical viewpoint. Since the end of March of this year, these events took the center stage of a years-long discussion about the situation in Southeast Asia, which, along with a subregion of Northeast Asia, makes up the modern “Balkans” of the new geopolitical arena (see “Political Maneuvers on the Korean Peninsula”). Among other aspects, the difficult – to put it mildly- situation in Southeast Asia is especially rooted in territorial disputes between China and a number of ASEAN member-countries in the subregion.

Leading political players, themselves far removed from Southeast Asia, tend to involve themselves directly, rather than obliquely, in these disputes; this is particularly true of the US. Furthermore, the political strategies of China and the US in the subregion possess a mutually exclusive character. China is searching for a resolution to disagreements with each of its Southern neighbors individually (and not with ASEAN as a whole) and has more than once announced that involvement in disputes “outside powers” is unacceptable – this in reference to the US.

The goal of the US, which enjoys the sympathy of the majority of ASEAN members, can be summed up, in the words of Robert Kaplan, as the prevention of the “Finlandization” of these countries, meaning the preservation of their independence not only in law, but in practice. The failure of meetings held between the parties on March 18 in Singapore, where agreement on a “Code of Conduct” in the South China Sea acceptable to all could – yet again – not be reached, witnesses to the deadlock in negotiations between China and ASEAN countries.

The possibility of a Chinese military solution to disputes over ownership of a number of archipelagos in the South China Sea has long been discussed. In the mid-1970’s, Beijing used force in the conflict over the Paracel Islands, of which Vietnam claims ownership. But it is the Russian Crimean operation, some experts believe, which makes further use of force by China in the South China Sea a very real prospect.

Since the end of March 2014, such a prospect, it seems, has become an object of concern for US leadership. It is perhaps worth nothing that cautionary messages on this matter were sent from Washington to Beijing through military – not diplomatic – channels, and originated from US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel.

He initially used a gathering of the Defense Ministers of 10 ASEAN member-countries, held April 1-3 in Hawaii (the location of Pacific Command Headquarters, the most powerful in the US armed forces) for this purpose. Officially, the meeting was devoted to coordinating efforts by military authorities for dealing with the aftermath of various disasters. A wide range of issues concerning the military-political situation in Southeast Asia were actually discussed, however.

In the course of discussions with ASEAN counterparts, Hagel made several interesting statements.

First, he characterized the very holding of such a meeting as “deeply important, capable of strengthening friendly ties between the US and ASEAN countries”.

Second, without direct mention of China, he emphasized the necessity of “averting threats or the use of force in resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea, over which US fears are growing.”

Beijing carefully and attentively followed the meeting. In particular, an editorial comment in the semi-official Global Times alluded to the necessity of modifying Chinese policy in the South China Sea in order to allay tensions with its Southern neighbors. Certain aspects of this modification were observed as far back as the fall of 2013.

Immediately following negotiations with his ASEAN counterparts, Hagel began an official tour of a number of Asian countries, with his first destination being Japan. Both parties there affirmed the necessity of strengthening a US-Japanese military and political alliance in light of various “challenges to stability” in Northeast Asia.

TheDemocratic People’s Republic of Korea, which – in response to US-South Korean military exercises in South Korea – launched a series of tactical missiles during this time, has traditionally been named as one source of such challenges. North Korean “counter measures” have proven useful yet again, as they were used for announcing plans to deploy two US destroyers equipped with ballistic missile defense systems to the Japanese Islands, in addition to the seven already available there.

The day before departing for Beijing, Hagel, still in Tokyo, made a yet stronger and more pointed statement in reference to China, containing several noteworthy aspects. In particular, for almost the first time in the public rhetoric of a US administration representative, China was labeled a “super power”.

This term, however, was used as a reminder of the “extraordinary responsibility” of countries of this status, and of the necessity of “Chinese respect for their neighbors” as well as the inadmissibility of using methods of “coercion and intimidation”, leading “only to conflicts with fatal consequences”. Finally, Hagel’s Tokyo statement contained a clear warning to Beijing about hypothetical attempts to employ “recent Russian experience” in China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors.

During Hagel’s ensuing 3-day visit to China and talks with the leadership of the US’ main regional (and now international) opponent, both parties observed the necessary diplomatic politesse. Publicly, as before, there were many statements about the necessity of developing a multi-lateral cooperation in support of peace and stability in the Pacific Rim region as a whole.

However, aside from general rhetoric, Hagel’s visit to China resulted in no visible signs of a possible rapprochement between Washington and Beijing on the causes for or ways of allaying tensions both in East Asia as a whole or in key subregions of Southeast and Northeast Asia. A statement by Chang Wanquan – Hagel’s Chinese counterpart – for example, addressed most likely to the US’ main regional ally, hardly contributed to the matter: he termed the issue of Chinese ownership of the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkaku Islands in Japan) “not negotiable” and indicated that Chinese armed forces are prepared to “fight (for) and win” them.

However, a remark by the same Chinese Minister of Defense that China “will not make the first move” leaves some room for optimism about prospects for development of the situation in East Asia.

Vladimir Terekhov, leading research fellow at the Asia and Middle East Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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