To be very frank, I didn’t see it coming. The fact that President Obama arranged a special summit for heads of state and government of the U.S. and ASEAN member states is unheard of, even when the U.S.-ASEAN relations is currently in its strongest ever.
The summit ended on 16 February, and all eleven heads of state and government released a Joint Statement that highlights some issues that are center to these two entities’ relations. From terrorism to climate change, the mandatory ‘respect for sovereignty’ (very typical to ASEAN), the statement may be normative, yet still relatively welcomed.
However, I realized that one particular sentence within the Joint Statement should epitomizes the configuration of U.S.-ASEAN relations, and Asia-Pacific in general. I am referring to statement 7:
“Shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS);”
Please take a moment to let it sink in. Remember that in international politics, semantics, choices of words, do matter a lot. A lot of things can be inferred from the presence of just a few words.
Read again that statement, and let’s digest. The first part of the statement seems innocent, “Shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes…” It sounds like the Charter of the United Nations, and perhaps founding documents of just about any international or regional organization anywhere. Heck, it may even refer to the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Temple, for that matter. “Peaceful resolution of disputes” is the norm of international politics in the twenty-first century, and when I say it is innocent, I say it is innocent.
Continue reading, and suddenly you will find a few words that seem not to be in its place, “1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)“. The moment I read this very sentence, the thing that popped out in my mind is, really, the U.S., really? Of all legal sources that you can cite pertaining to peaceful settlement of dispute, why must UNCLOS?
Again, it may seem innocent enough, and most people may not bother to read it anyway. But I am certain these few words will burn some ears in Beijing.
How not? The presence of this very Convention, which is not even ratified by the U.S., signals a whole new chapter in the U.S.-ASEAN-China relations. The U.S. is being very, very serious about South China Sea, to begin with, and ASEAN member states are increasingly siding with the U.S. in an attempt to counterbalance China’s constant pressure over the disputed territory.
No wonder that at about the same time the summit is concluded, China is said to have deployed missiles to the Sea. The concerned will think that war is coming.
I think for a summit as innocent, as almost insignificant as a superpower against ten relatively minnow powers is concerned, taking this position is very brave. Symbolically, it signifies a shift: Knowing that it will be almost impossible for those ASEAN member states to counterbalance China with regards to South China Sea, the U.S., in its own interest not only for freedom of navigation, but also to balance or even prevent China from becoming a regional superpower, decides to side with this group. And to add salt to the wound, these Southeast Asian countries seem to feel glad to go along with the U.S., offering protection against a mightier power.
Also, I think for the past few months, this is the first time the U.S. is being that blatant about the issue of South China Sea. The disputed sea rarely becomes the U.S. center of attention. It has a lot more issues with China than a mere body of water, but take a look at the trend now: Even the U.S. is brave enough to conduct its own freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) along the disputed sea, only to provoke anger from China.
I am not saying that this sentence will cause war in Asia (that, ladies and gentlemen, will be the great exaggeration of the twenty-first century). Yet to make a sleeping giant even angrier, I think this subtle hint may do some damages.
Some improvements to both countries’ relations, apparently, do not last too long. I think the moment when President Obama and President Xi delivered a joint statement on both countries’ environmental agreement still lingers well within my mind. The relatively successful visit of President Xi to Washington is also a highlight in improving both countries’ relations. This, or rather, this particular sentence, may insinuate China to disregard all those positive improvements.
Also, remember that Eastern cultures, such as China, takes a lot of thought in terms of semantics, choice of words, or underlying meaning. What is said is not always what is meant. What seems innocent, like the fact that UNCLOS is mentioned at a passing within this longer joint statement text, will be translated differently by China. I will not be surprised that condemnations will follow suit.
Now, the subsequent question will be, will China and the U.S. go into war? My answer is no, for a varying reasons. Firstly, war will be very expensive, not only for the U.S., but also for China, if they so inclined. The cost of war will be even more expensive, if you consider the fact that China’s economy is currently growing the slowest in two decades.
Secondly, China realizes that its military is yet to be able to defeat the American military technology, which is years more advanced compared to China’s. Even a blast of cannon may only be used for nothing more than to make a statement, but not to be blown to a full-scale war.
Thirdly, I somehow believe that China still learns from its greatest military strategists, including the like of Sun Tzu. Of course, Sun Tzu believes that the greatest war is won not by fighting, so by just making a statement that China is prepared, without directly jumps into full-blown conflict, may translate into a triumph for China. It will ring true also especially if it is followed by an action from the U.S. to back down ever so slightly from its increasing pressure over South China Sea.
Furthermore, I also remember what Master Sun said, that compared to fighting, famine will create more suffering. In the modern era, I translate this as economic blockade. Rather than fighting, it is better from China’s perspective that it blocks or restricts the flow of international trade crossing South China Sea and its vicinity, that it may create a choke on American economy. Yes, there are arguments that this is almost impossible, due to the interdependence of both countries’ economy. Remember, though, that it does not necessarily negate the possibility that China takes this just to ‘teach ’em a lesson’, again, without blasting any gun.
So, if you remember there was Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, now there is this statement, particularly that one sentence that launched a thousand ships. I don’t know if the presence of this particular statement, in this form, is intentional or not, but as far as I am concerned, this is a serious thing to deal with. Perhaps I am a bit exaggerating here, it’s just a sentence, move along and continue. Yet again, don’t allow the Americans’ inability to foresee how the Chinese will react to this seemingly innocent message catches us off-guard.
This is one really, really, serious issue.