The South China Sea as Asia’s Palestine?

by Chris Zappone

The outgoing secretary general of ASEAN Surin Pitsuwan told the Financial Times that the South China Sea could “evolve into another Palestine” if countries like China, Vietnam and the Philippines don’t dial down the tensions over territorial disputes. I’m not sure if Palestine is the right metaphor. But already you can see that sides are being taken.

Countries aligned with China:

Cambodia. In the FT article which I won’t reproduce here, Mr Pitsuwan said Cambodia did “what it had to do” at the ASEAN summit last week by preventing the 10-member group from addressing the South China Sea disputes. China clearly wanted this and Cambodia delivered.

Countries aligned with the US:

Japan and the Philippines, with the latter reprising some of its Cold War relationship with the US.

The US and Japan are adjusting their post-WWII security guidelines to reflect the modern realities of Asia. The NYTimes article gives some insights into how Japan is reviewing its security arrangements in the region. Recall that post-war Japan, like post-war West Germany, emerged with clear restrictions on their type of military forces they could build.

Countries somewhere in between: all the others. The conventional wisdom not long ago seemed to be that countries like Vietnam and Indonesia didn’t want the US to exit the region, but didn’t want to be forced to choose between China and the US.

I wonder if already the calculus behind the risk has changed. There has been no shortage of accusations and claims, causing a lot of nations to reassess their best options.