As the new government takes shape in Washington, the situation in South China Sea is fast evolving in to a walk over for Chinese hegemony. The July 12 ruling by the International Court on South China Sea was sweeping to say the least but what followed that ruling i.e. the reactions by all involved as well as major stake holders, points to rapidly changing dynamics of the region. To add fuel to fire, the foreign policy faux paus of the new president elect in the US haven’t helped to address the growing concerns of traditional US allies in East Asia. The ‘Taiwan call’ may have sold well in the US, but its aftermath has been swift and ongoing. Since the call, the Chinese military has flown missions over contested islands and seized a US naval drone in international waters. Going forward in these conditions, what can we expect in East Asia and the South China Sea region?
To start, we can expect other countries to follow the Philippines in realigning itself with Beijing instead of relying on American support in the long run. President Duterte recently visited China, announced a ‘divorce’ from the US and strongly suggested that it might be time for the Philippines to accept the reality and back off the Scarborough Shoal dispute in favor of China. Cambodia and Laos are already firmly in China’s corner. Japan, sensing the changing dynamics, is reaching out and building bridges with the Russians and the Chinese. ASEAN as an organization has chosen to deal with all this the ASEAN way i.e. every member does their own thing and the organization sticks to pragmatism. In this scenario, the only country without a way out is Taiwan. But then again Taiwan has learned to survive against the Chinese onslaught for years and with their lead lobbyist in the US (Bob Dole) being a close president elect ally, they have hope for some moral support.
The Chinese on the other hand, have a chance to build a regional hegemony that will consolidate its future global predominance. By creating a system of economic benefit distribution across the region, the Chinese intend to fundamentally realign the region to be dependent on China for decades to come. That is exactly what the Chinese argued with the Philippines i.e. they take control of Scarborough Shoals and develop it. The final benefit of that development can then be shared. This way at least Philippines get something out of it instead of getting nothing.
So consider it from this perspective as well – If China is to remain supreme and build a global hegemony, it needs to have stability in its own region. This stems from peace, security and economic growth in East Asia. East Asia needs to have the basics agreed upon before they focus on economic growth and addressing domestic issues. What China can do, by taking responsible action, is to divide up South China Sea benefits to create an economic patronage structure in the region. Such a move allows China to exert control over South China Sea and engage regional countries in its development under the deal that everyone gets something even if China gets most of it. In essence, China can now force and cajole regional countries to buy in to its vision of how this region should function. And vision has China as the core and everyone as the periphery.
This vision has been taking shape in the form of the project known as ‘One Road, One Belt’. Consider Duterte’s shift in stance mentioned earlier. It signifies the new reality in East Asia; it is pointless to resist China. It is more beneficial to collaborate as a junior partner instead of waiting for the US or the EU to guarantee support. Similarly, for reference, look at Pakistan and notice how things have stabilized and how potent the Chinese influence is in a country that was traditionally close to Washington and London. The deal China has to offer is rationally more viable to most countries in the region especially now that it is becoming apparent that the US and the EU cannot be relied on for a foreseeable future for political or economic support.
Point is that there is a pattern to be observed here. China’s obsession with controlling global logistics through ports, train connections and sea ways was only under threat from US foreign policy influence. Now that influence is being revamped and focused elsewhere, so China is beginning to flesh out its vision for the region around it. As the traditional world powers pull back to focus on local issues, new powers like China and to some extent India, are moving ahead with a more economic centered foreign policy.
The region is evolving for the better and the realignment was necessary eventually. Even though no one except China was truly ready for this global realignment, they are fast getting the message and adapting to the new order.