Authors

Robert G. Sutter

George Washington University
Photo of Robert G. Sutter

Robert G. Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at Elliott School of International Affairs (ESIA), George Washington University; he also directs the ESIA program of Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs, involving over 1,000 students. A PhD graduate in History and East Asian Languages, Harvard University, Sutter taught full-time at Georgetown University (2001-2011) and part time for thirty years at Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins Universities, or University of Virginia. He published 21 books including The United States and Asia ( 2015) and Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy since the Cold War fourth edition (2016). Sutter served as Senior Specialist and Director of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division, Congressional Research Service; National Intelligence Officer for East Asia; China Division Director, Bureau of Intelligence and Research; and professional staff member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Articles by Robert G. Sutter
China Consolidates Control and Advances Influence

Chinese officials showed confidence and satisfaction that the cooling tensions in the South China Sea demonstrated increasing regional deference to Beijing’s interests while China’s economic importance to Southeast Asia loomed larger in a period of anticipated international retrenchment. They remained alert to possible actions by the United States, Japan, Australia and South China Sea claimant states that might upset the recent positive trajectory, but generally saw those states preoccupied or otherwise unwilling to push back strongly against Chinese ambitions. The way seemed open for steady consolidation and control of holdings and claimed rights along with a Chinese supported code of conduct on maritime activity in the South China Sea, diplomatic initiatives to promote closer ties and reduce regional suspicion of Chinese intentions, and an array of economic blandishments in line with Beijing’s ambitious Silk Road programs.

Beijing Presses Its Advantages

Chinese leaders steered relations in Southeast Asia to their advantage after successfully countering the adverse ruling of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague against China’s controversial claims in the South China Sea. The remarkable turnabout in the Philippines, from primary claimant to pliant partner, and notable restraint on the South China Sea disputes by other claimants and concerned powers allowed Beijing to seek greater regional influence. In the closing months of 2016, Beijing made major advances with visits by the Philippine president and Malaysian prime minister, Premier Li Keqiang’s participation at ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings in September, and President Xi Jinping’s participation at the APEC Leaders Meeting in November. China adopted a stronger regional leadership role as the US failed to implement important initiatives, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The main uncertainty in China’s positive outlook was President-elect Donald Trump who repeatedly criticized China, foreshadowing a less predictable and less reticent US approach to differences with China.

Tensions over South China Sea territorial disputes dominated relations throughout the summer months of 2016. Fearing that the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal case would go against China, Beijing took remedial steps in the lead-up to the July 12 ruling to show resolve to domestic Chinese constituencies and to counter international pressures. With the Tribunal’s award even more negative for China than most anticipated, Beijing’s attacks on the arbitral panel and warnings to neighbors and the US intensified. They were accompanied by shows of force in the South China Sea.  Given the restraint of others, after a few weeks registering intense indignation, Chinese officials and commentary also moderated their rhetoric. Whether the Chinese shift to moderation was tactical or strategic remains to be seen.

Relations in early 2016 were dominated by China’s unremitting efforts to expand its control in disputed territory in the South China Sea in the face of complaints, maneuvers, and challenges by regional governments and concerned powers. US-led challenges to Chinese expansion included expanded military presence and freedom of navigation operations accompanied by strong rhetoric from US defense leaders warning of Chinese ambitions. The constructive outcome of the US-China meeting on March 31 reinforced indications that neither Washington nor Beijing sought confrontation. Against that background, the responses of Southeast Asian governments remained measured. They followed past patterns of ambiguous hedging against China’s assertiveness, demonstrating some increased criticism of China, and greater willingness to link more closely with the US to dissuade China’s disruptive expansionism.

President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang led Chinese government officials in responding in measured and moderate ways to regional challenges and criticisms as Beijing defended South China Sea claims and advanced its regional influence. Moderation after a period of strong assertiveness replicates similar shifts in 2013 and 2014. Those shifts turned out to be tactical, lasting a few months each; possibly timed to avoid negative consequences for Chinese leaders facing public acrimony during the APEC, ASEAN and East Asian Summit meetings that occur each fall. Developments in 2015 suggest a more lasting period of moderation, though there is no sign of change in the Chinese positions on various disputes.

China has made significant gains in advancing control in the South China Sea. Its bold tactics involving massive dredging and rapid construction, shows of military force, deployments of its Coast Guard fleet, and movement of massed fishing vessels and large oil rigs warned of China’s power and determination to have its way. Apart from the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s Southeast Asian neighbors have adopted a low posture on the advances. Nevertheless, US rhetoric has become increasingly strident and it has deployed military forces. Japan and Australia also took steps to counter the Chinese moves. Malaysia, this year’s ASEAN chair, allowed a full discussion of the South China Sea disputes at the ASEAN foreign ministerial meetings in August. Placed on the defensive, Beijing offered words of reassurance and conciliation, emphasizing common interests with ASEAN and the US in peaceful economic development and other areas. But these tactics may have limited impact outside China.

Beijing’s recent economic initiatives with neighboring countries focus on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Chinese Silk Road Fund. The Boao Forum featured a keynote speech by President Xi Jinping emphasizing the AIIB and Silk Road Fund support for infrastructure connectivity with neighbors to create a “common destiny.” Against that positive background, lower-level Chinese officials, using carefully measured language, rebuffed complaints by the Philippines, Vietnam and the US protesting China’s rapid creation and expansion of islands through massive dredging and follow-up construction of facilities. Senior leaders did respond sharply when Myanmar armed forces killed Chinese civilians in a cross-border air attack in March. In a departure from past practice, ASEAN leaders publicly registered serious concern about the land reclamation in the South China Sea.

President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders were actively engaged in Southeast Asia. They established or reinforced initiatives that employ Chinese wealth and economic connections to attract neighbors to China, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Maritime Silk Road through Southeast Asia. Against this background, attention to China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea declined and efforts to stabilize relations with Vietnam moved forward. The implications of these Chinese initiatives remain hard to determine as China has endeavored before to focus on positive features of mutual development only to find changing circumstances lead to differences over sovereignty claims, overshadowing common ground.

China’s deployment of an oil rig along with a protecting fleet in the Paracel Islands shocked the region and particularly Vietnam, the other main claimant to these islands. Large-scale dredging to create Chinese-controlled islands in the disputed Spratly Islands was also observed. These advances demonstrate how far Beijing is prepared to go in advancing its broad territorial claims in the South China Sea. Mass demonstrations in Vietnam in response to the oil rig deployment turned violent and caused widespread damage. Beijing stood firm in blaming others for negative consequences and dismissed charges that its territorial advances were counterproductive. The removal of the oil rig in mid-July, earlier than expected, was interpreted outside China as designed to reduce tensions. Major foreign policy speeches by senior Chinese leaders emphasized the positive in China’s commitment to development and peaceful coexistence.

Chinese efforts to shift the emphasis toward positive economic and diplomatic initiatives and to play down South China Sea territorial disputes foundered in early 2014. Beijing’s assertiveness and advances involving fishing regulations, air defense rights, and maritime activities based on China’s vague and broad territorial claims received repeated, strong US executive branch criticism and firmer opposition in Congress. The US was joined by Japan, the Philippines, and Australia. Chinese media noted President Obama’s effort to sidestep direct criticism of China during stops in Malaysia and the Philippines in his April visit to Asia, though the Philippine-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was widely criticized. While Southeast Asian media also registered concerns with Chinese assertiveness, most governments tended to avoid criticism. Nevertheless, Malaysia and Indonesia voiced concern about China’s broad territorial ambitions.