As diplomats disband after the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Cambodia on Friday, they shouldn’t feel too pleased with themselves. They failed to reach an agreement on a code of conduct for claimants in the South China Sea, diminishing the chances that a resolution will come anytime soon.
The prospects of a resolution were never good, though. Running up to the meeting, bird spotters in the region sighted many hawks, but few doves.
Reports of Vietnamese fighter jets, armed Chinese patrol boats and Philippine naval vessels dominated the pages of local newspapers, stirring nationalist sentiments at home.
Although these military manoeuvres attracted a disproportionate amount of attention, a larger geopolitical game played out in the background.
Much as gravitational bodies attract others with a force directly proportional to their mass, a rapidly rising China has quickly pulled the United States closer into its orbit. The much publicised US “tilt” towards the Pacific will see a redeployment of US naval forces on a 60/40 split to the region.
China, already concerned about the vulnerability of its energy import corridors, interpreted the move as another attempt at containment and reacted angrily. However, Beijing has not done itself any favours.
CNOOC’s decision to offer blocks within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone was never going to quell nationalist sentiment in Vietnam or the Philippines. Neither did it win hearts and minds abroad, with many seeing the move as another instance of Chinese bullying.
And while a little intimidation often goes a long way – both on the school grounds and the world stage – it can cause the meek to seek shelter with the strong.
The State Department was quick to take advantage of the situation, dispatching Hilary Clinton and Leon Panetta to the region. Mongolia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos all received US overtures gratefully, and inroads into Southeast Asia that were once blocked became unbarred.
Previously a playground for Chinese firms, Myanmar had seen precious little Western investment since sanctions were first implemented. This, combined with Chinese unilateralism and apparent disregard for corporate governance, soured Burmese perceptions of Chinese operations.
“We welcome the lifting of the sanctions,” a Burmese source based in London told Interfax. “Rather than letting Chinese and Indian companies monopolise the market, the presence of western firms will increase competition and help increase the welfare of Burma’s citizens.”
China used to have everything its own way in the region, but its diplomatic blunders have already cost it Myanmar. It may not stop there.