Page 1 of 2 Balloon goes up over the South China Sea
By Peter Lee
There were signs of a major escalation in US activity in the South China Sea - but not during the ASEAN meeting.
Back on July 13, I wrote about US frustration with successful People's Republic of China (PRC) efforts - symbolized by but not limited to the HYSY 981 drilling rig outrage-to defy the US campaign to deter PRC assertiveness in the South China Sea. Quote:
US South China Sea policy needs a reboot. To quote the Financial Times: "Our efforts to deter
China [in the South China Sea] have clearly not worked," said a senior US official.
In 2010, the US justified its attention to the remote reaches of the SCS on the grounds of "a national interest in freedom of navigation.
[S]ince the PRC relies on freedom of navigation for commercial traffic to an existential degree (most of the traffic through the SCS is, after all, going to and from Chinese ports), there was an embarrassing dearth of Chinese offenses against freedom of navigation that compelled US action. ...
[Events] would seem to require that the definition of the US national interest in the South China Sea be redefined to enable more effective pushback, preferably pushback that carries the threat of the PRC's least-desired outcome: confrontation with US military forces ...
The Financial Times makes an interesting elision by stating "The Obama administration declared South China Sea a US 'national interest' in 2010," leaving out the rather important qualifier "in freedom of navigation".
Today, if the US is simply declaring a national interest "in the South China Sea" full stop, that would imply, well pretty much whatever the US wants it to imply. In practical terms, this means that the United States will have the luxury of acting unilaterally in its self-defined national interest, unconstrained by rigid considerations of international law (which the PRC, for the most part, carefully attempts to parse and the United States, by its failure to ratify the Law of the Sea convention, is on the back foot) or the position of ASEAN (which the PRC has, for the most part, been successful in splitting).
The US recently took another bite out of the SCS apple by calling for a construction ban in the South China Sea (the PRC has been dredging, expanding, and improving some of its island holdings in order to strengthen its sovereignty claims) ...
Apparently the United States has decided that ASEAN needs an extra push to come up with the proper anti-PRC policies and, even though the US is not a member of ASEAN, it will be more pro-active in trying to shape its policies and counter the PRC's attempts to divide and influence the forum.
Fastforward to mid-July, and Secretary of State John Kerry floated the construction "freeze" proposal at the ASEAN meeting in Myanmar with the support of the Philippines.
The scheme was DOA, Dead On Arrival, bracketed by unambiguous PRC rejection before, during, and after the meeting. ASEAN declined to mention the freeze proposal in its communique, opting for endorsement of the code of conduct negotiations instead.
Another unfortunate takeaway from the ASEAN meeting was the unwelcome suspicion that the United States has compromised its "honest broker" status to the point that the real "honest broker", ie the independent-minded power that can and must be wooed by all parties with genuine concessions in order to hammer out unity and workable compromises is now Indonesia.
Nevertheless, in its background briefing, the United States delegation declared victory: Clearly, we have succeeded in our mission, which is to try to seed the clouds of conversation. This apparently was not enough for some journalists:
Question: So coming back to what Matt was pressing on the freeze, I mean, that's not going to be agreed this time. Senior Administration official: So I think that you want to - Senior Administration official: That was never the expectation. Senior Administration official:: Right. Senior Administration official: Yeah. So the whole purpose was to shape the conversation, focus the conversation in the region on the behavior and the assertions that are occurring, and making sure that the pressure stays on those people making - those countries asserting their behavior.
However, for the most part, the PRC rebuff and the lack of a positive outcome were acknowledged.
The US subsequently made the portentous announcement it would "monitor" developments in the South China Sea, a message, I suppose, that the US claims the right to promote its South China Sea agenda independent of what ASEAN desires to do - or not do.
As for the PRC, it announced a "dual track" of bilateral talks and negotiations with ASEAN over a code of conduct, and reaffirmed its rejection the freeze - and with it the validity of the US role as the "responsible adult" in the South China Sea.
Xinhua weighed in with a cutting commentary "A Calm South China Sea Needs No Flame Stoker", which reminded ASEAN that the previous pretext for US intervention hadn't panned out: "The US worry over maritime safety is unwarranted since the freedom of navigation has been fully guaranteed."
It concluded with a statement that, although Chicom propaganda, is distressingly close to the truth:
It is a painful reality that Uncle Sam has left too many places in chaos after it stepped in, as what people are witnessing now in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
The South China Sea should not be the next one.
The real fireworks, however, was provided by US Senators John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse during a visit to Vietnam.
Vietnam, of course, is in play now. Reformist elements in the Vietnamese elite are taking the nationalist tack of criticizing the leadership for excessive obeisance to the PRC and, more discretely, advocating a tilt toward the US, pluralism, and a more open economy. Although the Vietnamese government eventually nixed a visit by the foreign minister to Washington to discuss closer coordination (presumably because the PRC withdrew the HYSY 981 rig), McCain and Whitehouse went to Vietnam to discuss a lifting of the US arms embargo and, presumably explore the alluring question of an eventual US return to Cam Ranh Bay.
During their visit, Vietnamese media reported on August 9 that Whitehouse made this rather remarkable statement:
At yesterday's press briefing, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper asked Senator Sheldon Whitehouse for comments about the US's responses, considered by public opinion as rather strong, against China over the recent tension in the East Vietnam Sea.
Senator Whitehouse replied that exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of every country form a sustainable network of EEZs that have been established based on international conventions and laws, as well as on mutual understanding, which help avoid conflicts and maintain stability in EEZs.
Therefore, whenever a challenge appears and poses a threat to peace and stability in EEZs, then not only the US but also the entire world community will take action against the threat, the senator said. [emphasis added]
Such a case has occurred and the US and other countries have responded against it, he added.
I am not familiar with the precedent cited by the senator.
When the United States committed naval vessels to make sure the Strait of Hormuz remained open in 2011-2012, it was acting on a very limited brief: the right of the world community under customary international law to keep open for "transit passage" a vital strait inside 12-mile territorial waters (not the EEZs) of Iran and Oman, for which no alternative existed.
Iran, on the other hand, tried to argue that a promise to observe "transit passage" rights was obligatory only to states that had ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which Iran and the United States both had not done. The US, obviously, chose to ignore Iran's objections, but the long-recognized need to ensure transit passage through critical straits also meant that the world gave Iran's position rather short shrift.
EEZs are a whole 'nuther thing than territorial waters, it would seem, a 200-nautical mile zone beyond the 12-mile limit recently defined by UNCLOS and reserved for economic exploitation by the state that can support a claim to it.