Much of the international coverage and commentary about the disputes over islands in East Asian waters has concentrated on the battle in the South China Sea for territory and resources. However, the situation is complex, and it is not simply a case of China against everyone else.
In recent weeks, the United States has been vocal about what it thinks about the disputes. While most East Asian governments welcome the US diplomatic and military “pivot” to the region, they also don’t want China further antagonized.
During the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, chair Cambodia “vetoed” the Washington-backed code of conduct for the association as a whole to deal with China over the South China Sea (as opposed to the bilateral, one-on-one negotiations Beijing wants, which give it more leverage). Many international commentators vilified Phnom Penh for kowtowing to Beijing. But if so, it has good reason: China is Cambodia’s biggest investor and donor; Phnom Penh would have miscalculated by acting against the wishes of its No. 1 patron. That’s just realpolitik.
“Perfect neutrality is impossible when some [ASEAN] members are formal allies with one power, or receive large amounts of high-profile aid from another,” writes Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone, a book about the geopolitics of the region.
Another ASEAN chair might have acted the same too. Even though its economy is softening, China remains the main driver of economic growth in East Asia. Also, not every ASEAN member has a dog in the South China Sea fight. Why risk enraging the dragon for Vietnam and the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia and Brunei?
The full article, entitled Why Asia’s Maritime Disputes Are Not Just About China by Zoher Abdoolcarim, is available here.