U.S.-China Confrontation Widens

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS August 4, 2010
The confrontation between the United States and the People’s Republic of China has moved from the waters around the Korean peninsula to Southeast Asia. During the late July meeting of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China and more than a dozen other countries, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Washington has grown increasingly concerned about the competing claims for territory in the South China Sea. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines have vied for control of the region's waterways, which are the principle trade routes of the region, and islands which under international law confer oil and mineral rights in the adjacent seabeds.
 
Vietnamese, Philippine and Malaysian officials have voiced their concerns to the U.S. about China's increasing aggressiveness to laying claims to places like the Paracel and Spratley islands. At least a dozen Asian countries pushed at the ASEAN meeting in Hanoi for a dispute mechanism to be established. Secretary Clinton supported the idea, saying America has "a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”
 
Beijing was alarmed by the emerging alignment of ASEAN and the U.S. China's Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, condemned Clinton’s remarks as an attempt to “internationalize” disputes that China wants addressed bilaterally. Yet, none of the small states in S.E. Asia can stand up to Beijing on its own. China has repeatedly said its claims on the waters and islands of the South China Sea are “indisputable” and part of its “core interests.” Beijing often refers to the area as its “territorial sea.”
 
China has also tried to claim that rights granted for economic development under the UN Law of the Sea Treaty constitute sovereign control of the area, which it does not. The state-run Xinhua news agency, for example, has complained that the U.S. “has dispatched naval vessels to China's exclusive economic zone to conduct illegal surveys” several of which have been harassed by Chinese forces. The Xinhua commentary by a former fellow at the Central Party School closed with the ominous warning, “Beijing will never allow external forces, like the U.S., to interfere in the matter.”
 
A July 28 editorial in the Chinese Communist Party publication Global Times warned against any new alignment against Beijing, “Pressure to maintain an influence and guard against a rising China, the West is eager to cozy up to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. Meanwhile, the Western media likes to poison Sino-Vietnamese ties by painting China as ‘an elephant’ which can easily trample on the interest of Vietnam. Vietnam should also be careful about not becoming a chess piece for the U.S. as it pursues a broader regional agenda.” Yet, Beijing has threatened multinational oil companies operating in Vietnamese waters and detained Vietnamese fishermen it claims are trespassing in Chinese maritime territory.
 
In a 2007 paper, Ralf Emmers, head of graduate studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, argued that tensions in the South China Sea had been de-escalating for several reasons: These included the lessening of the China threat image, limited Chinese power projection, Vietnam joining ASEAN, the downplaying of nationalist rhetoric, limited proven oil reserves in the area, and restrained U.S. involvement in the disputes. He noted, however, that the disputes had not been settled, so “tensions could rise if these factors were to change for the worse.” They now have.
 
The first two factors are connected. As China acts more aggressively to project its power, its image as a threat grows. A few days before Clinton spoke in Vietnam, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke in South Korea about how China has been investing in satellites, aircraft, anti-ship missiles and a planned aircraft carrier group as it has shifted the focus of its military expansion outward. Mullen said he has moved from being "curious about what they're doing to being concerned about what they're doing." It is a concern shared by countries all along the Pacific Rim. China’s naval expansion has prompted Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia to buy new submarines. Japan has been deploying forces to the southern island chains between Kyushu and Taiwan in response to Chinese naval incursions.
 
A July 26 Global Times editorialproclaimed, “China's long-term strategic plan should never be taken as a weak stand. It is clear that military clashes would bring bad results to all countries in the region involved, but China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.” The editorial appeared just as a large scale air and naval exercise was being held in the South China Sea. People’s Liberation Army Chief of Staff General Chen Bingde watched the operation and was quoted by Xinhua as saying the nation must make "solid preparation for military struggle.” The PLA newspaper Military Weekly ran a commentary claiming, "If other people threaten our interests, we have enough military means and technological methods to keep them in check.”
 
In reference to Professor Emmers’ other factors, China has been intensifying its exploration of the disputed areas in search of oil and gas fields to power its expanding industrial economy. It has also been pumping up nationalistic rhetoric in the state media and the “patriotic” blogosphere. A July 30 editorial in Global claimed “The public strongly desires an aircraft carrier because of the prestige associated with one, the power it projects to the rest of the world and the sense of defensive security it provides.” The editorial then noted where a carrier force would be most useful, “In the South China Sea, for example, where tensions occasionally spill over, an aircraft carrier might help China achieve victory in small-scale clashes in disputed waters….an aircraft carrier could be an effective tool to maintain order, and it could win China respect from neighboring countries.”
 
A July 13 Global Times editorial praised the outpouring of popular support for the Communist regime,
 
For a government, people's patriotism is never a burden. In a world where people still walk forward with a nation as the basic unit, every nation, including China, needs its people's solid, profound patriotism. It nourishes a sustainable impetus for national development. In any nation, there are core values and resources that can never be swayed or encroached upon. This is the responsibility of not only the state, but the people as well.
 
The question is how much support will Clinton’s initiative get from the White House? It is well known that the Secretary of State favors a more active stance towards world affairs than President Barack Obama, who is inclined more towards disengagement and appeasement. For example, in response to Chinese protests, the joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercise held just before the ASEAN meeting was kept in the Sea of Japan and away from the Yellow Sea, which Beijing claims as “territorial” waters.
 
And the authoritative U.S. journal Defense Newsreported June 28 that no more arms sales to Taiwan will be approved until next year, putting on hold at least three pending requests from the island democracy directly threatened by China. The newspaper reported that the reason for the hold was “effective lobbying by Beijing.” But what does this say about the outlook of officials who could be swayed by the Chinese?
 
From Japan to Australia, the nations along the Pacific Rim feel the need to align to balance the rising power of China. Otherwise, Beijing can pick them off one by one on issues of vital interest. But such a coalition needs the backing of the United States to have credibility. America is still the region’s strongest naval power, as it has been since the end of World War II. Washington must act both diplomatically and militarily to maintain its strength in Asia, upon which other nations also depend for their freedom.
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing EditorWilliam R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.
 

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