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  • “No Sole Control” in the South China Sea?
  • Donald K. Emmerson (bio)

Connoisseurs of the international relations of Southeast Asia owe much to the scholarship of the widely published, well-known, and warmly regarded author and educator Sheldon Simon. Relevant for this essay here is a 1985 article of his about China’s relations with Southeast Asia. The manifold ways in which the world has changed have not lessened the value of the opening insight in that piece. Without succumbing to historicism, Simon acknowledged parallels between China’s traditional and twentieth-century ways of dealing with its Southeast Asian neighbors: “The essence of Beijing’s policy, then and now, is that China must play a primary role in determining regional order.”1

Notwithstanding the differences between the Middle Kingdom and the People’s Republic, Simon saw China maintaining its earlier inclination to benefit “those neighbors willing to acknowledge its regional prominence” while punishing “those who refuse to acquiesce.” One could hardly ask for a more accurate description of China’s approach to Southeast Asia in 2018—more than three decades after Simon wrote the article. Looking forward, he presciently surmised that, for most states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China would remain “an incipient problem.”2

Problematic China

In Southeast Asia today, China is simultaneously a security problem and an economic opportunity. Due to space constraints, only the problem that China poses for its southern neighbors is discussed, not the opportunity that China also represents for them, and the problem’s scope is limited to Beijing’s intentions and behavior in the South China Sea. The argument is twofold. First, China wants more than prominence [End Page 67] in that body of water. What it wants, and has been working energetically to obtain, is dominance—control. Second, it is time for claimant and user states alike—those that assert sovereignty in the South China Sea, including China, and those that access and transit its waters—to agree that no single country, including any one of them, should control the South China Sea.

Frequently at international colloquies the author has attended, a Chinese diplomat or semi-official analyst will assure his listeners not only that his government does not want to interrupt or shape the flow of traffic in the South China Sea, but that it unilaterally “guarantees” freedom of navigation across the sea’s waters. Only by controlling the South China Sea all by itself could China carry out that assurance. As for sharing responsibility for the protection of maritime traffic equitably with the sea’s other claimants and users, how could Beijing do that without abandoning the ambition for sole control embodied in its notorious nine-dash line?3 The line is therefore discussed below.

China’s long-standing and ongoing strategy in the South China Sea has been to divide, intimidate, entice, and displace its Southeast Asian rivals for the sake of gaining and entrenching Chinese maritime control.4 Ample evidence backs this judgment: the unilateral imposition of fishing restrictions on the sea’s northern half; the coercive appropriation of the land features and their surrounding waters up to unspecified limits in nearly all of the sea; the incorporation of the sea’s features and related waters into Hainan Province under Chinese law, including features not yet occupied by China; and the augmentation and transformation of Chinese-occupied features into military bases. Equipped with runways, hangars, docks, missile emplacements, and tools of electronic warfare, these bases back up thinly veiled Chinese threats to attack unwanted visitors, including Philippine and Vietnamese vessels and planes.5 Indeed, with such weapons [End Page 68] centrally located in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia, Beijing can strike targets throughout the region. For ASEAN’s members, China has been economically opportune. But Beijing has also practiced “debt-trap diplomacy” by leveraging its ostensible largesse to motivate recipient states to align with China to the detriment of ASEAN’s unity and centrality. The purchase of Cambodian despot Hun Sen’s loyalty as a proxy veto of ASEAN positions to which Beijing objects is a case in point.

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