Whenever the East Asia Summit meets, its members are under trial to show that they can use multilateral means to tame the Chinese dragon. In the past few years, this has increasingly come to mean bringing Beijing to accept that unilateral and military means should not be used to solve the South China Sea territorial dispute. This is not about forcing China to curtail its growing strength. It is about persuading China that it has more to gain from accepting such norms in its bilateral disputes than it does from bulldozing other countries into submission.
The first step is to show China that it faces diplomatic isolation on its South China Sea or other island disputes. The Summit, and more tellingly its core institution, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), proved unable to take even that first step of forming a common front against China. The hope of members like Vietnam and the Philippines — and less obviously even Japan and India — was to corner China on accepting a code of conduct on the South China Sea. Not only was there no success on that front, these countries had to fight off attempts by China’s advocates within Asean like Cambodia to put a ban on “internationalising” the problem.
This then beggars the question as to what geopolitical architecture can handle China. The preferred option is represented by the East Asian Summit: multilateral, diplomatic and consensual. This is showing less and less likelihood of success. The other options include a straightforward balance of power game in which countries like India, the US and Japan would band together against China. This would mean an effective Asian cold war, which everyone wishes to avoid. Another option is the development of a new Asian regional architecture that ignores the existing Asean core and tries to put together something new. This is a difficult path, but it is happening de facto. Vietnam’s recent call for a conference of all non-Chinese players in the South China Sea is another. India needs to be at the forefront of the experimentation that this entails, as the alternatives of Chinese unilateralism are worse.