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South China Sea Issue: The U.S. Moves from Neutrality to High-Profile Intervention

[Editor’s Note: Xinhua published an article analyzing China’s strategic position in the South China Sea dispute. The author makes suggestions on how to deal with U.S. intervention on this issue. The entire article is translated below.]

High-profile intervention after long premeditation

This year, tension, which is closely related to the high-profile involvement of the U.S., has again developed over the South China Sea. Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell visited several Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. When a reporter asked a question about the U.S. position on the South China Sea, Campbell took advantage of the situation. He answered that he hoped to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and that the negotiations on the South China Sea should be multilateral. At the end of July at a forum of ASEAN foreign ministers in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the South China Sea issues involve U.S. interests and that the U.S. intended to hold an international conference on the South China Sea issue. On August 8, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington arrived at Da Nang, Vietnam, near the South China Sea. On August 10, the U.S. navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) also arrived at Da Nang and started a four-day joint exercise with the Vietnamese navy. The spokesperson for Vietnam’s foreign ministry, Nguyễn Phương Nga, publicly proclaimed that “The U.S. warship’s entry into Vietnam’s port has a great strategic significance. It is an indication of the regional balance on defense affairs. I think that the U.S. will play a more important role in the region.”

Soon afterward, U.S. President Barack Obama blatantly meddled with the South China Sea issue. On September 24, at the second U.S.-ASEAN summit in New York, after meeting with ASEAN leaders on strengthening U.S.-ASEAN relations, President Obama issued a joint declaration, calling for a peaceful solution to the South China Sea sovereignty dispute and emphasizing the importance of freedom of navigation in the region. Before the summit, he also pledged to deepen U.S.-ASEAN relations and play a more important role in Asian affairs. On October 11, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Vietnam and declared that the Asian countries should solve the territorial conflicts through multilateral channels. He guaranteed the Asian countries that the U.S. would still participate in Asia’s security affairs and protect the Southeast Asian countries. At the Inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting + 8 in Hanoi in October, Gates again indicated that core issues in the region include territorial disputes, counterterrorism, and anti-piracy. He added that it is very difficult to use bilateral relations to solve these problems and that multilateral channels are needed.

However, all previous U.S. Administrations have remained neutral on the South China Sea issue. As of June 2009 when Secretary of Defense Gates visited Manila, he was still telling the media that the current U.S. policy was not to get involved in the South China Sea territorial dispute. Then why did the Administration’s position change from being neutral to high profile involvement?

In fact, the U.S. has long premeditated on pushing the South China Sea issue through multilateral and international channels. In recent years, it has intended to return the focus of its foreign diplomacy from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Asian and Pacific regions. Since Obama took office in early 2009, the U.S. has continually strengthened its contacts with ASEAN so as to resume its influence in Southeast Asia. Examples include its meeting with leaders of the ASEAN nations last year and the decision to attend the East Asia Summit in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta.

By intensifying the South China Sea situation and promoting an international solution, the U.S. intends to have China divert more strategic resources to the South China Sea issue so as to curb the rise of China.

Some Southeast Asian countries that have territorial and oceanic disputes with China would indeed like to have the U.S. be their voice so that they will have strong backing when discussing the South China Sea issue.

At present, the ASEAN countries are cooking up a South China Sea code of conduct, hoping to use this to consolidate certain Southeast Asian countries’ positions and interests on the South China Sea issue. Their premise is that, although the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that was enacted in 2002 is the document used to resolve the South China Sea issue, it doesn’t have any binding power. They therefore hope to enact a new agreement that can be legally enforced. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III indicated right after taking office in June that the ASEAN countries should enact a new South China Sea conduct standard that is enforceable. The U.S. was quite pleased with this announcement and said that it would like to be the host for an international conference on the South China Sea so as to guarantee navigation safety. When Aquino III visited the U.S. in September, he presented this issue as a gift to Obama. The U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Harry Thomas, also expressed publicly that the U.S. would like to assist in developing a “standard of conduct” that is enforceable in this area in order to solve the conflicts between ASEAN and China on the South China Sea issue.

China’s Response

Facing the above mentioned South China Sea situation, how should China react?

I believe that China should oppose turning the South China Sea issue into an international, multilateral, and magnified concern. China should repeatedly explain that the South China Sea issue is only a territorial and oceanic right dispute involving China and certain Southeast Asian countries surrounding the sea. It is not an issue between China and ASEAN, or a regional or international issue. Thus, it can only be negotiated by the two countries directly involved, in a friendly way, and be solved peacefully. Any intervention by a big power outside the region will not only be of no help, but will complicate the issue.

U.S. intervention on the South China Sea issue was not truly to help Southeast Asian countries, but was pragmatic diplomacy designed to establish its leadership in Southeast Asia. Regarding this point, some Southeast Asian countries are on the alert. For example, Philippine Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo explicitly indicated on August 9 that the South China Sea negotiation should be carried out between the ASEAN countries and China, with no intervention from the U.S. or any other third country. That same day, Malaysia media also published an article pointing out, “Washington should not meddle in regional affairs. This will only cause trouble, not solve the problem.” Indonesia’s Jakarta Post also published an article saying that the South China Sea is a peaceful and stable body of water. Indonesia may damage its relationship with China for the sake of pleasing the U.S. The article called on the government to boycott the U.S. agenda.

Facing U.S. containment in the South China Sea, China needs to change its low-key diplomacy of the past and take a hard-line, showing its military strength. Showcasing its military strength can back up its diplomatic struggles. A good example occurred this summer, when the PLA conducted a combined operation with real soldiers using live fire in the South Sea, deploying major destroyers from three navy fleets – the North Sea Fleet, the East Seat Fleet, and the South Sea Fleet. It sent a message to the outside world that, with rapid economic development and speedy military modernization, China has the confidence and the ability to safeguard its legal rights on the sea.

China and the U.S. should strengthen their dialog and communication in order to reduce misjudgment and distrust. In fact, China and the U.S. haven’t reached the point of military conflict. It is very necessary to reduce tension through mutual contact to enhance mutual understanding. As an example, in October when China and U.S. defense ministers met at the Inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting + 8 in Vietnam, the military exchange between the two countries was once interrupted due to U.S. arm sales to Taiwan. China subsequently rejected U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates’s request to visit China. This time China defense minister Liang Guanglie’s invitation to Gates to visit China next year symbolizes a breakthrough in the relationship. The “ice melting” will help the mitigation of regional tension.

China should continue to carry out policies of “befriending its neighbors,” “pacifying the neighbors,” and “enriching the neighbors” in order to develop a good relationship with ASEAN countries. Countries surrounding the South China Sea face a dilemma in their attitude toward China: on the one hand, they want to benefit from China’s rise; on the other, they are worried about an overly empowered China and hope to balance China against outside powers. However, because of the significant difference in national strength between these countries and the U.S., the U.S. often overwhelmed the demand for their interests. As a result, their intention to have the U.S. counterbalance China turned out to be a tool that helped the U.S. achieve its goal of hegemony. As long as China insists on its policies of “befriending the neighbors,” “pacifying the neighbors,” and “enriching the neighbors,” and continues to strengthen close political and economic contact with the Southeast Asian countries, the U.S. plot in the South China Sea will never come to fruition.

Both sides of the Taiwan Strait should also cooperate on this issue and jointly defend the sovereignty of the South China Sea. Recently the two sides have moved gradually from separation to exchange and cooperation on culture, the economy, politics, and so on. This tremendous and positive change provides the possibility for both sides to achieve further cooperation on the South China Sea issue. Both sides may consider the joint exploration of oil and gas resources, protecting the South China Sea fishery resources, and mediating fishing disputes. The two sides can also establish an effective cooperation mechanism to maintain navigation security in the South China Sea and conduct marine rescue work. When the timing is proper, both sides can try a joint military exercise, joint patrol, and joint strikes on marine crimes.

[1] Xinhua, December 15, 2010