U.S.-China Super-Power Collision Looming in South China Sea

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent passage through South-east Asia saw Washington close ranks with its former adversary Vietnam, sending a warning to Asian heavyweight China that its assertive foreign policy in the region will be challenged.


The diplomatic battleground is the South China Sea, a stretch of ocean that has a spread of reefs, coral atolls and slender slivers of land that hardly qualify as habitable islands but for decades have been the subject of a territorial dispute in the region. 

This stretch of sea washes the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China, which have overlapping territorial claims in the area. Over the years, China has used military force to have a toehold on the often-submerged spits of land. 

Reports of untapped oil and gas reserves have kept tensions up around the waters of the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands archipelago and the Spratly Islands, which are also key shipping lanes. 

While these disputes have seen the competing interests of all six claimants bubble to the surface, none compare with the diplomatic and military clashes that have occurred between traditional rivals China and Vietnam. 

There is thus little wonder why analysts had been speculating that Hanoi would bring up the South China Sea issue at a series of ministerial-level security meetings it hosted last week. This annual gathering included foreign ministers from the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc, and their counterparts from China, the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea. 

Yet it was not Vietnam as this year’s head of ASEAN – which also includes Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – that tabled the prickly issue of the South China Sea during a closed-door session on Jul. 23. 

Clinton waded into these troubled waters by endorsing a view that Hanoi has maintained, saying that the long-running dispute should be resolved in a multilateral setting than a bilateral one. 

For years, Beijing has preferred a bilateral route as a way out of the tangle, although it has acceded to an ASEAN agreement to maintain the status quo in the South China Sea. 

"The United States supports a collaborative, diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion," Clinton was quoted as saying after the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). "We encourage the parties to reach agreement on a full code of conduct." 

"The United States, like every nation, 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," Washington’s top diplomat added. 

China did not remain quiet during the ARF closed-door sessions. "Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed Beijing’s position about the South China Sea very forcefully," a South-east Asian diplomat who was in Hanoi told IPS on condition of anonymity. 

"Beijing does not want the dispute under any international radar screen," writes Kavi Chongkittavorn, a commentator on regional affairs in Monday’s edition of ‘The Nation’, an English-language daily in Thailand. "Under the current ASEAN chair, Vietnam has been walking a tightrope as it is also a party to the conflict." 

"Hanoi did not touch on the problem directly but discreetly reminded all claimants of its concerns," Kavi explains. "A recent working group meeting in Vietnam on this issue between the two sides did not yield progress." 

Clinton’s position, however, reflects a shift in U.S. policy toward ASEAN under the Obama administration – multilateral engagement with South-east Asia – from the previous Bush administration’s reduction of Washington’s profile in the region. 

"It is very clear that when the Obama administration looked around the world at the beginning of its term, it realised that there was too much emphasis on terrorism and on bilateral relations," Robert Fitts, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in three South-east Asian capitals, told IPS. "ASEAN offered an opportunity for multilateral engagement, which is what the Obama administration is looking to pursue more forcefully." 

Washington’s concerns over China’s role in the South China Sea mirror this position, which has prompted a strong reaction from China, reveals Fitts, a visiting scholar at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. "Last October, Beijing told Washington that it views the South China Sea as an area of its ‘core interest’." 

The Chinese government has used the description ‘core interest’ when referring to Taiwan and Tibet to fend off criticism about what it views as sovereignty issues. 

China, which has controlled the Paracels after a battle it waged with Vietnam in 1974 that left 18 people dead, alarmed ASEAN countries after its unilateral occupation of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in the South China Sea in 1995. 

That dispute paved the way for the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the first political agreement between ASEAN and China to resolve disputes through a multilateral mechanism that strives for "peaceful solutions to disputes and conducting maritime cooperation in order to maintain regional stability in the South China Sea." 

But Washington’s voicing of support for this multilateral approach, a return to the policy of U.S. governments in the nineties, will add to China’s suspicion that it faces a daunting diplomatic challenge if ASEAN speaks with one voice on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. 

The position of countries like Thailand, however, may help allay Beijing’s fears. "Thailand’s position is to back ASEAN working towards a regional code of conduct with the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties," Thani Thongphakdi, the Thai foreign ministry’s deputy spokesman, told IPS. "It is our understanding that overlapping territorial claims will be handled bilaterally."

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