On March 18, officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet in Singapore to discuss steps towards an elusive code of conduct in the contentious South China Sea dispute. If the past is any indicator, China will ensure that such diplomacy will produce little significant progress even as it continues to coercively change realities on the ground in its favor. While cooler heads hope diplomacy will prevail, hope is not a strategy. Southeast Asian officials and other external partners like the United States and Japan need to use the full range of instruments at their disposal to persuade Beijing about the urgent need for a diplomatic solution, dissuade it from undertaking further destabilizing moves, and prepare for a range of crises in the absence of Chinese cooperation.
Since 2009, China has displayed a growing assertiveness towards ASEAN states in the South China Sea, using a combination of diplomatic, administrative and military instruments to impose unilateral fishing bans, harass vessels, and patrol contested waters. Despite the so-called ‘charm offensive’ by China’s new leadership in the region in 2013, Beijing’s conduct in the South China Sea has remained largely unchanged, with a new fishing law promulgated in January, invasive patrols and encroachments into waters of other claimants, and foot-dragging at talks over a code of conduct it finally agreed to discussing last year. Meanwhile, the specter of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea also continues to loom large. Yet, as former CIA senior analyst Chris Johnson told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year, unlike most other observers China’s leaders continue to see no contradiction between seeking better relations with Southeast Asia and assertively defending their sovereignty claims at the expense of other ASEAN claimants.