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Asia's Game of Thrones
Toward Detente In the South China Sea?

Earlier this month, China scored a diplomatic victory when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rolled over on criticizing its activity in the South China Sea by issuing a communique that skirted the issue of Beijing’s island-building and militarization. This week, more signs abound that China is on a roll, as rival claimants beat a hasty path to Beijing to hash out their disagreements bilaterally.

First, via Reuterscomes the news that Vietnam—once one of the most openly confrontational countries toward China—has agreed on a joint communique with Beijing to keep tensions in check on the path toward a long-term solution:

After what China said were “positive” talks on the South China Sea last week between President Xi Jinping and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, the joint statement stressed the need to control differences.

Both countries agreed to “manage and properly control maritime disputes, not take any actions to complicate the situation or expand the dispute, and maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea”, it added.

The document, released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said both had a “candid and deep” exchange of views on maritime issues, and agreed to use an existing border talks mechanism to look for a lasting resolution.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported over the weekend that China and the Philippines are beginning bilateral talks on the South China Sea this week. And while officials in Manila are cautioning that the dispute will not be resolved overnight, President Duterte has sounded an upbeat note, even suggesting that a lucrative deal could be in the works to share the sea’s energy resources with China and Vietnam.

None of this means that the thorny South China Sea dispute will come to a swift conclusion, but the talks are significant in their own right. China has always insisted that its maritime disputes be settled on a bilateral basis, contra the Obama administration’s efforts to use ASEAN as a multilateral proxy to challenge Chinese claims. Now, after 8 years of Obama and four months of Trump, many of China’s neighbors have come to a similar conclusion: with the U.S. policy process visibly hobbled, they might as well fend for themselves and cut a deal with Beijing.

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  • KremlinKryptonite

    I view it somewhat differently. Bilateral negotiations means Beijing wins every time, and that’s why they’ve been asking for bilateral talks with each state from the get go. To me, US allies and partners are tired of waiting for the US to actually do something concrete, and they’re calling the US’s bluff. In other words, is the US really okay with them conceding to Beijing, and Beijing getting basically getting everything it wants, or not? US leadership waned under Obama, and allies and partners are increasingly skeptical of Trump for good reason.
    He hasn’t done anything substantive to impose costs on Beijing for supporting the Kim regime.
    He hasn’t done anything substantive to correct the undue trade imbalance (one of his primary talking points).
    He has actually pulled back on the FONOPS in the SCS (which Obama only really started in late 2015 – late indeed).

    • ——————————

      He hasn’t been in office that long either….

      • KremlinKryptonite

        That’s true. But so far US allies and partners have more reason to be skeptical than not. They see Trump pulling back in SCS and making optimistic pronouncements on Beijing and working together….he’s not the first president to make them, and that’s because it results in failure.

        • ——————————

          “He hasn’t done anything substantive to impose costs on Beijing for supporting the Kim regime.
          He hasn’t done anything substantive to correct the undue trade imbalance (one of his primary talking points).
          He has actually pulled back on the FONOPS in the SCS (which Obama only really started in late 2015 – late indeed).”

          These were the things you said in your first comment that I was commenting on in my first reply.

          As to your present comment, I think Trump is a totally different personality than the typical political class that has always held the presidency…so I think that those allies and partners presumptions are a bit fallacious and unsupported at this time.

          This is not going to be a quick fix in a few months. It will take years….

          • KremlinKryptonite

            Right, and I said those things because he indeed has not addressed them in any substantive way. This is especially important with regard to North Korea because there are things that he could do immediately that would have a real impact.

            For example, besides overtly supplying most of its food aid and 90% of its fuel needs, it is well known and well understood that the Chinese Communist Party has allowed individuals and entities operating in China to help the Kim regime skirt sanctions for a very, very long time.
            Trump could sanction those banks and companies. President Bush considered it (pre 2006) and chose not to act post 2006, instead deciding to let his successor make that decision. Obama failed to act as well.

            Allies see Trump moving sideways on the issue, and even pulling back in the SCS.

          • ——————————

            Why, in your opinion, has no one sanctioned those banks and companies?
            And why might Trump move sideways on the SCS?

          • KremlinKryptonite

            Read Trump’s twitter. He’s telling us. He thinks he can make some progress. Haven’t seen it. Just more of the same mixed messages. Hopeful pronouncements and then contradictory actions and statements from Beijing. Same old, same old.

            The whole notion of relying on Beijing to just change course is bizarre to someone who has been observing – closely – for about 20 years, like myself. Does Beijing have the ability to change pyongyangs behavior? Yes. Not disputable.
            But they’ve spent decades supporting the regime.
            America stopped SKs nuclear ambitions.
            China nurtured and helped (or allowed others to help) NKs nuclear ambitions.

            Beijing will change course if the calculus changes. It hasn’t. POTUS can change the math for Beijing. Sanctioning Chinese banks and businesses that support NK will be a bold, decisive move. It would have to be coupled with many public statements, and basically made into a spectacle.
            The CCP responds, begrudgingly, to financial incentives and public shame.

          • Unelected Leader

            Forget it. Trump won’t do that. Seems like they were considering it in Feb-March, and some articles were written about it. But that all died down after General Secretary Xi shared the now infamous chocolate cake with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. We could be in for a really rough ride. I knew there was trouble when he touted the SoftBank plans. Not good. Trump understands basic economics (I thought) so he should know better.

            Think about it, Xi Jinping gave the keynote address at Davos and lauded globalism and globalization. It was surreal! I mean I get it, globalism has benefited the CCP enormously, but its not so popular in the west. It has especially harmed America. Trump rode a populist, anti-globalization wave into the WH! And here he is making nice with the worlds Globalist in Chief.

          • KremlinKryptonite

            Yes, the comments on SoftBank were, needless to say, saddening and troubling. Of course, casual viewers think it’s great. Investment sounds fantastic, right? Wrong. Foreign MNCs “investment” is code for buying existing (key word) US companies and shifting labor overseas. Even if they set up a US subsidiary of their own company it only adds to the trade deficit. It’s a natural business process called consolidation, and surely Trump knows it.

            Although, I’m not totally hopeless at this point. It is early, and let’s be honest, Trumps vanity is alive and well. Hopefully he wakes up from the pleasant dream of CCP cooperation without having to really impose costs first. Hopefully he’s the kind of man we all think he is, and won’t let someone make a fool of him for too long.

          • ——————————

            Thanks KK!

  • Beijing’s stance in the South China Sea has been illegitimate from the very beginning, especially as it claims its waters in their entirety; it belongs to the PRC no more than the Sea of Japan belongs to the Japanese or the Indian Ocean belongs to India.

    If China is willing to flagrantly go against international law, then it should be treated like Russia was at the United Nations.

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