SINOGRAPH US toe-dipping muddies South China Sea
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Washington last week decided to step into a delicate international
territory it had previously left alone, and that underscored the many strategic
challenges brewing in economically booming Asia.
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the 10-member Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum that disputes over the highly
sensitive South China Sea were a "leading diplomatic priority" and now "pivotal
to regional security".
The statement was issued while controversy is still simmering
over the sinking in March of the South Korean corvette Cheonan. The US
and South Korea claim North Korea sank it, but China remains aloof and refuses
to back further sanctions against Pyongyang.
This backdrop certainly contributed to increasing concerns in Beijing, as
interpreted by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who voiced his strong opposition
to Clinton's declaration.
Diplomats present at the discussion in Hanoi agree that Yang responded with a
strong and emotional statement that sounded defensive and suggested that the US
planned the move to put China on the spot.
China fought its last armed engagement against Vietnam in 1988 over an island
in that sea.
China and Vietnam both claim the South China Sea's Spratly and Paracel
archipelagoes in their entirety, while the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei
claim the Spratlys in part. Taiwan's claim mirrors that of Beijing's.
Potentially rich in oil and natural gas, both island groups also straddle vital
sea lanes linking Asia to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Clinton's words could be considered as a part of a strategy to press China on
many fronts, from North Korea to the South China Sea. Yet not all is going
wrong between China and America in Asia. In fact, Washington is likely to have
had a hand in Beijing's main political success in the region.
In recent years, Beijing has greatly improved ties with Taiwan - the island is
de facto independent but formally part of "one China". Taiwan's ruling
Kuomintang Party (KMT) has signed a free-trade agreement with Beijing, which
will hook Taiwan's economy to the mainland's, and ratings for Taiwan's
President Ma Ying-jiu are now on the upswing. The KMT has been the US's main
ally in Asia for some 80 years, and it is highly unlikely that Ma's steps
toward Beijing have not been discussed and agreed on with Washington.
Taiwan is extremely sensitive for China: it embodies the topic of national and
territorial integrity, and it is a wedge driving at the core of China's
patriotic pride. The South China Sea is different, and in fact China has for a
decade renounced the possibility of enforcing its claim over the sea and showed
openness to the principle of the common development of the area. It means that
China accepts that things will remain unclear and will avoid starting a war
with any of its neighbors anytime soon.
Still, from China's perspective, things are already very complicated in the
South China Sea, and having the US step into this pond further muddles the
waters. For Beijing, it means that even if the Taiwan issue is somehow resolved
and even if Beijing were to withdraw its support for North Korea, China and the
US could still have disputes over the very thorny issue. Or else, is Clinton's
statement part of a larger American move to force China's hand over other
delicate international agendas, such as North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan?
China's claim over the South China Sea is a projection of Beijing onto the
oceans, a promise to change China's millennia of continental destiny and follow
the long-abandoned strategy of 15th century Admiral Zheng He to travel and
possibly master the high seas. China pursues its blue-water navy ambitions
largely thanks to its claim over these tropical islands and rocks.
These ambitions won't challenge the US's overall dominant position in the
oceans for decades. China will need many years to develop a navy capable of
threatening the American position, and so far China has never positioned itself
against the US in the oceans. Moreover, China's first blue-water navy mission,
against Somali pirates, occurred within the framework of a North Atlantic
Treaty Organization coordination agreement. Yet the Chinese navy could become a
hindrance to local US action in the area. Why, short of a broad bilateral
political agreement, would America let this occur?
In many ways, China's claim over the South China Sea is a Cold War legacy. The
Soviet Union took millions of square kilometers from China's Qing and
Republican map in the coldest north, including parts of Mongolia, Manchuria and
Xinjiang. Yet it endorsed and encouraged Mao Zedong's maritime claim over an
area that in the 1950s was dominated by the French in Indochina and America,
masters of the Philippines.
In particular, for years China's aspired reach into the South China Sea became
a Cold War political gambit vis-a-vis the US, which was then engaged in Vietnam
after the French defeat and Vietnam's division into North and South.
In a way, the Soviets expanded their Asian territory, secured their hold on
Vladivostok (and hoped even to gain a strong foothold in Dalian), and pushed
China away from its ancient territorial aspirations in the north and into new
unfathomable southern waters.
Decades later, the political divisions have changed while political geography
remains and plays a different role. China's Cold War goals, which should have
disrupted America's involvement in Indochina and thus aided Hanoi, have turned
into a major bone of contention with Vietnam since the end of the American war.
Vietnam is now willing to look for support from the old American enemy against
China, the ancient menacing neighbor.
In the ASEAN conference, for instance, Clinton talked with Hanoi, praising
Vietnam as a dynamic and great nation. The Pentagon has also noted China's
actions with alarm, particularly its persistent warnings to American and other
international oil firms to pull out of exploration deals with Hanoi in southern
Vietnamese waters. Executives at ExxonMobil - the world's biggest oil firm -
were approached by Chinese envoys and told that its business in China would be
hurt unless it pulled out of a deal with Vietnam.
Then, when Beijing accepted Moscow's bargain, did it walk into a Soviet trap?
Did Joseph Stalin, knowingly or not, create a future territorial clash between
China and the US over America's longstanding reach in these seas?
Chinese experts allegedly bought some papers from Soviet archives documenting
that Stalin supported the early establishment of the Israeli state just to set
a trap for America in the Middle East. With the existence of the Israeli state,
the US, with a strong Jewish community, was bound to support it against
neighboring Arab states. The Soviet Union could then switch alliances and
support the Arabs - or at least torment America via proxy wars against Israel.
Did Stalin, suspicious of Mao's inclination to work with the US, spring a
similar trap against China and the US in the South China Sea? That would be one
good reason for China to withdraw from the old snare.
Still, China's policy of opening up to the world, and its decision to move
development to the coasts and away from the rivers (where it was historically
located) naturally requires a projection into the oceans, and thus into the
South China Sea.
Moreover, Beijing's present claims in the South China Sea meet two sets of
China's needs. First, it promises to at least partially quench its thirst for
energy. Second, it extends its area of trade security, which otherwise would be
totally in the hands of the US, the only country able to safeguard worldwide
Then, with or without Clinton's remarks, China has many entangled objective
troubles in its south. In fact, the overall issue is that China is prisoner to
its geography - and has territorial disputes with all its bordering states and
This is further complicated by its claim in the south. All of China's neighbors
could grow fonder of an American presence in the region as China grows stronger
and more powerful, for the simple reason that a distant friend is better than a
Then, once again, the issue for China is to develop a strategy taking into
account the resolution or easing of its territorial disputes and coming to
terms with the idea that the US presence in Asia could be indefinite, possibly
Even if in 20 years the US economy could not afford its fleet, China's
neighbors, and even China, might be willing to finance it, so as to have some
kind of neutral referee in place. This would ease disputes and clashes that had
the potential to unravel economic development in the region - something that
needs go on for several decades if Asians are to reach the per capita gross
domestic product of the US.
Is Clinton hinting at this future or simply tossing some salt on one of China's
many open wounds? The tough reality for China is that those wounds could
possibly fester faster without an American presence in the region than with it.