Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     Jul 29, 2010
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 maritime routes.

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 territories. [1]

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 close foe.

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 permanent.

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.

1. See The blessing of China's threat La Stampa, June 4, 2007.

Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.

(Copyright 2010 Francesco Sisci.)

China takes new tack in maritime diplomacy
(Jul 14, '10)

US and China can't calm South China Sea (Jun 4, '10)

1. Pakistan has its own battle to fight

2. Europe's Iran sanctions may backfire

3. Murder on the Khyber Pass Express

4. Leaks make war policy vulnerable

5. Obama's Afghanistan strategy under siege

6. China tries realistic rating

7. Shooting the messenger in Singapore

8. India has limited Afghan options

9. The death of political idealism in Hong Kong

10. China's pro-missile navy sinks carriers

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jul 27, 2010)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110