A New Playbook for China and ASEAN

KUALA LUMPUR – The ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea is a watershed moment for international law and an unmistakable warning to China about its strategic assertiveness in Southeast Asia. China says that it does not recognize the PCA ruling; but that doesn’t mean it is undisturbed by it.

The question now is how China will respond. Will it change its often-aggressive behavior in the region, or will it continue to view the South China Sea mainly in terms of US-China competition? If China assumes that a war-weary and risk-averse US will avoid conflict, it could simply assert its South China Sea claims by force.

But belligerence could backfire in several ways. First, it would force the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to choose between China and the US, a decision that all of them would prefer to avoid. Whereas ASEAN member states – particularly the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia – generally have deep military ties with the US, they also value their economic ties with China. The reality is that ASEAN states could choose to become independent players, rather than pawns in the US-China competition, implying that it is in China’s interest to maintain ambiguity in US-ASEAN relations.

Second, by militarizing outcroppings and artificial islands in the South China Sea, China is unwittingly strengthening ultra-nationalist groups in the ASEAN states. This development forces moderate leaders in these countries to adopt a tougher stance toward China than they otherwise would, in order to preempt attacks from the ultra-right and assuage their generals. A case in point is Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s recent visit to the Natuna Islands on a warship, a show of force in response to incursions there by Chinese fishermen and navy vessels.