China’s Air Defense Zone Highlights Need for Contingency Planning in Southeast Asia
December 12, 2013
Beijing’s recent announcement of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) has the region wondering whether similar zones will follow, especially in the highly disputed South China Sea. China’s ambassador to Manila has said that Beijing reserves the right to set up an ADIZ over the South China Sea, a statement that sent chills through the region. But the real question is not whether China will assert more ADIZs in disputed waters, but what its new zone says about Beijing’s evolving strategy in Asia and how the United States and its regional partners should respond to future developments.
Beijing is unlikely to announce an ADIZ in the South China Sea in the immediate future, and its newly announced good neighbor policy offers U.S. policymakers a window to begin thinking about contingency plans for a future, more aggressive Chinese course of action.
Southeast Asian countries are puzzled by the ADIZ and China’s other mixed signals. A little more than a month ago, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang went on a diplomatic blitz to five ASEAN countries. Xi then told a closed-door meeting of high-level party leaders that the country was launching a new policy whose guiding principle would be to treat neighboring countries as friends and partners. The new neighborhood policy calls for the “best use of strategic opportunities” and the “creation of a close network of common interests,” emphasizing above all that national rejuvenation would be the goal of China’s regional diplomacy.
In this context, China has been investing in strategic bilateral ties with select ASEAN members. Trade and infrastructure are expected to be the two main drivers of future China-ASEAN ties. Xi and Li seem to understand the need to soften the hostility and heavy-handedness that characterized Beijing’s regional diplomacy during the latter years of the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao government. That heavy-handedness was exemplified by the pressure China placed on Cambodia to wreck consensus on the South China Sea at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in 2011.
China’s relationships with Malaysia and Vietnam, both claimants in the South China Sea, offer a valuable glimpse into its more nuanced engagement with Southeast Asia.
Malaysia is a significant trading partner for China and an important piece in its new regional strategy. For China, getting its relationship with Malaysia right has two goals. First, it could set an important precedent for how Beijing handles foreign policy with neighbors with whom it has outstanding conflicts. Second, it could serve as a showcase of the new policy toward its neighbors and a reminder to other countries that they have much to gain from cooperating with China.
Malaysia has often looked to China as the engine of regional growth and has supported a greater role for Beijing in regional institutions. Weeks after President Xi’s trip, Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein met with his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanqan, in Beijing, where both agreed to hold their first joint military exercises next year. Malaysia does not take for granted its claims in the South China Sea—the government decided in mid-October to build a new naval base along the disputed waters off the coast of Borneo—but plans are reportedly in the making to launch direct contact between Malaysia’s Naval Sea Region 2 and China’s South Sea Fleet.
Chinese leaders have also invested in revamping their oftentimes fraught relationship with Vietnam. Chinese policymakers recognize a shared heritage and ideological affinity between the two countries and their ruling Communist parties. While bilateral economic ties have forged ahead, Hanoi is anxious about its large trade deficit with China and overdependence on Chinese imports to fuel its manufacturing sector. Beijing hopes to assuage that concern with new infrastructure initiatives and border area policy.
During the past year, China and Vietnam have both refrained from heated rhetoric. Beijing even played up the significance of a recent joint agreement between the two governments on the delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf and fishery cooperation in the South China Sea. Like with Malaysia, China is counting on the established government-to-government consultation mechanisms, and strong party-to-party ties, with Vietnam to pay off in the long run.
But China is unlikely to permanently forego aggressive actions for the sake of good bilateral relations. This is one lesson of the new ADIZ, which has provoked both Japan and South Korea, and of China’s ongoing efforts to isolate the Philippines and pressure it to drop its UN arbitration case against Beijing’s South China Sea claims. Days after Beijing announced the East China Sea ADIZ, it deployed an aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and four escorting warships to the South China Sea for the first time on what the government described as a routine training mission. Against this backdrop, the United States has in place frameworks, especially with Vietnam and the Philippines, that it can use to begin strategic planning for future scenarios in the South China Sea.
The U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership launched in July opened up new avenues for training and cooperation on maritime security and domain awareness. Both the United States and Vietnam should move beyond diplomatic language in their annual Defense Policy Dialogue, which is currently convened at the vice ministerial level, and utilize it as a serious platform to discuss ways in which the two militaries could better coordinate on regional maritime security. The recent agreement signed between the two countries’ coast guards at this year’s defense dialogue is a welcome first step. In addition, Hanoi should rethink its lukewarm approach in recent years toward enhanced military cooperation with Washington in light of Beijing’s long-term game in the East and South China Seas.
It is imperative for the United States to conclude negotiations with the Philippines on an enhanced U.S. troop rotational presence. Bilateral talks stalled just before Typhoon Haiyan hit the central Philippines, due to what Manila said were disagreements over access for Philippine forces to U.S. facilities. Reaching a mutually agreed-upon framework will not only allow the United States to strengthen its force posture in the Western Pacific, but also pave the way for U.S. and Japanese military personnel to provide better training to their Philippine counterparts. In the meantime, the United States should show continuous support for the Philippines’ arbitration case against China and for resolving conflicts in accordance with international law.
Secretary of State John Kerry has a timely window of opportunity when he visits both Vietnam and the Philippines next week. In Vietnam, Kerry should stress the strategic importance Washington places on its economic and military cooperation with Hanoi, and call on Vietnam to play a greater role in regional security within ASEAN.
In the Philippines, Kerry should try to reinvigorate the negotiations on U.S. troop rotations, and indicate steadfast support for Manila’s efforts to peacefully handle the South China Sea conflicts. U.S. policymakers need to begin planning for ways to best coordinate with, and among, partners in Southeast Asia in order to avoid a discordant response as that seen between Japan and South Korea to China’s ADIZ.
Neither the United States nor ASEAN should assume they know what China’s next move in Asian waters will be. They certainly did not expect the recent ADIZ announcement. It is therefore important for the Obama administration to start working with friends and allies to be better prepared for coordinated responses to unexpected developments.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the December 12, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)
Phuong Nguyen is research associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary isproduced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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