Saturday, August 29, 2015

China may fear reputation damage more than military threats over South China Sea

Ashley Townshend,

To effectively prevent China from militarising its new islands, the US should look to regional economic, rather than military, threats

Image from article, with caption: Activists in front of the Chinese consular office in Manila in June shouting slogans against China’s reclamation and construction activities on the Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

Right now, the US is conspicuously alone in directly criticising China’s actions in the South China Sea. Respected global bodies – like the European Union or the Group of Seven – and coalitions of responsible regional players – like Australia, New Zealand and possibly Singapore – should also explicitly call out China’s island militarisation as illegitimate and destabilising. This would signal that a threshold had been crossed in the world’s tolerance of China. Moreover, their neutrality and widespread international respect would inject a new level of legitimacy into US-led criticism, making it harder for Beijing to dodge the reputational fallout.
Public diplomacy initiatives that shame China’s conduct also have an important role to play. But they require greater regional solidarity to be truly effective. For instance, the publication of satellite images that track the scale of China’s man-made islands and the use of surveillance flights to record its attempt to cordon off maritime no-go zones have successfully put Beijing’s provocative actions in the spotlight. Yet they’ve failed to effectively isolate China due to inconsistencies among America’s regional allies and partners. ...
As Beijing tends to respond assertively to acts of perceived foreign aggression, it is likely to become more determined about militarising its South China Sea islands if US warships launch high-profile missions within 12-miles of its outposts. By contrast, increasing China’s sense of international isolation and imposing subtle costs on its economic and political interests may be a more prudent and effective policy response.

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