China's claim to the entire South China Sea, which laps the shores of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Indonesia, is making governments throughout Southeast Asia increasingly nervous. Not only does Beijing insist its claims are non-negotiable to islands and resources that lie well within the 320-kilometer economic zones of these countries, it appears to be expanding them. Beijing has yet to lay out how its rights jibe with international law, or even exactly where its boundaries lie. At a time when a post-Deng leadership struggle appears to be escalating, the extensions of China's imperial reach have serious implications.
China's latest move, in March, was to install territorial markers on Spratly Island atolls surrounding the aptly named Mischief Reef, a mere 93 km off the Philippine coast. Before that, China published new official maps showing Indonesia's Natuna natural gas fields, to be developed in a $35 billion joint venture with Exxon Corp., belonging to the Middle Kingdom.
So far, China hasn't used its steadily growing arsenal of submarines, warships, and jet fighters to back up its claims with force. However, its large and quickly growing defense budget, designed to build a blue-water, ocean-going navy, has Asians, including the Japanese and Koreans, concerned.
China, of course, is moving into a power vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal from the region. Beginning with the retreat from Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and ending with the eviction from Subic Bay in the Philippines in 1992, U.S. military forces are now basically gone from Southeast Asia.
The chief responsibility for challenging Beijing's ambitions, therefore, belongs to the six-country Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Manila retaliated against China's attempt to build a structure on Mischief Reef by tearing it down and arresting dozens of Chinese fishermen. It persuaded ASEAN, for the first time, to protest Chinese incursions.
ASEAN countries should now go further and formulate policies on how to share overlapping claims to resources within 320 km of their continental shelves, as provided in the Law of the Sea Convention. But ASEAN also should formulate a response to China in the event it uses force to back up its claims. By all indications, the resolve of China's military remains unshaken notwithstanding Beijing's political turmoil.
ASEAN has yet to decide on what security role, if any, it wants the U.S. to play. Ironically, just when there are calls to exclude the U.S. from the region's economic future, there may be a growing need for American power to offset China's ambitions there. It is time for ASEAN leaders to begin a serious discussion of their geopolitical needs for the 21st century.