Page 2 of 2 US goes fishing for trouble
By Peter Lee
China's claims in the South China Seas have always been somewhat risible.
On official Chinese maps, the southern ocean boundary of sovereign Chinese
territory, defined by the notorious "nine dash line" hangs down like a
distended scrotum, extending hundreds of kilometers from Hainan, covering 80%
of the South China Sea, and coming within a few kilometers of the coasts of
Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
In actuality, many of the western Spratly Islands are controlled by Vietnam;
the Philippines and Malaysia maintain effective sovereignty over a set near
their archipelagoes; and China scraps
for control of the northern quadrant of the islands. 
Remarkably, the biggest island, Itu Aba (its name reportedly means "What is
this?" in Malay) is controlled by Taiwan. Taiwan keeps 600 troops on the island
and, much to Vietnam's dismay, constructed an airstrip. In 2008, Taiwanese
president Chen Shui-bian used Itu Aba for some high-profile geopolitical
posturing, visiting the island with two destroyers and two submarines.
A realistic settlement would presumably give China some reduced fraction of the
South China Sea, some kind of sovereignty over some of the islands it controls,
and a share of the undersea riches (the Spratlys have been characterized,
oil-wise, as "another Kuwait").
Achieving a settlement based on traditional national boundaries will be
difficult. The northern Spratlys are a fruit salad of Chinese, Vietnamese,
Philippine and Taiwanese flags, with no clearly defined zones of control that
can be neatly divvied up and formalized.
In 2002, a "Declaration of Conduct" was concluded between ASEAN and China. It
was essentially a standstill agreement by which the signatories undertook to
"exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or
escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others,
refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands,
reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a
The document stated some general principles but was not legally binding; nor
did it provide any dispute-resolution mechanism. 
While trumpeting its willingness to engage in a series of bilateral talks with
its neighbors, China has "sliced the salami" in the words of one analyst,
incrementally upgrading its presence on the islands it does control, while the
PLAN behaves more assertively against the fishing boats and government vessels
of other stakeholder nations.
Vietnam (which prefers the term "East Sea" to "South China Sea" for obvious
reasons) has become extremely vocal about its claims in the Spratlys and has
tried to "multilateralize" the issue through international institutions such as
the UN Law of the Sea Commission's Commission on the Limits of the Continental
For its southern waters, Vietnam made a joint submission, together with
Malaysia, that made a sound scientific and legal case for a definition of its
EEZ that would significantly whittle away at China's South China Sea claims.
China for its part was only able to submit a map with the notorious "nine dash
line" that claims 80% of the South China Sea, an indication that China is
unable to summon up the diplomatic and strategic fortitude to pursue a
reasonable resolution of the South China Sea mess.
Both China and Vietnam have attempted to gain US support for their position by
granting oil exploration concessions in contested zones to US oil companies.
In the 1990s, China signed an exploration agreement with Crestone Energy that
went nowhere; US officials assert that China warned off Exxon Mobil and BP from
signing agreements with Vietnam for activities in the South China Sea.
The United States has been actively wooing Vietnam as a partner in matters of
the South China Sea.
Before Clinton's speech to ASEAN, commander of US Pacific Command Admiral
Willard visited Hanoi to announce American concern over the South China Sea
disputes, which he declared to be a "vital US interest" because of the US$1.3
trillion in trade goods that pass through it. 
He was followed by Senator James Webb, the US Congress' point man for weaning
smaller Asian authoritarian regimes such as Myanmar and Vietnam from the
overbearing Chinese dragon.
Webb also raised the danger that some countries might use "force or threats of
force" to advance their claims in the South China Sea, and called on all
involved countries to abide by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the
East Sea (DOC). 
An influential US think-tank, the Center for a New American Security
(co-founded by Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific Kurt
Campbell), introduced a new element: inviting Indonesia (now the object of
intensive American diplomatic blandishments, including resumption of exchanges
with the brutal Kopassus special forces) to serve as South China Seas
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded to these US maneuverings with an
exasperated statement on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on July 25.
Instead of asserting a "core interest", Yang framed the South China Sea matter
- at least in the context of China's relations with its near neighbors - as one
of "preserving China's sovereignty and lawful interests", later discussing
China's "reasonable concerns" in the area.
He may have been responding to anxieties expressed in the Chinese media that,
by seizing on the purported "core interest" framing, the United States had
successfully boxed China into an untenable position of having to alienate its
maritime neighbors in order to assert its superpower credibility vis-a-vis the
While his advocacy of bilateral talks instead of an ASEAN process to resolve
the issue (though he did hold out the possibility of a meeting of ministers
"when conditions were ripe") may not have been entirely persuasive, Yang was
probably more convincing when he declared that there were no serious threats to
peace, freedom of transit, or security in the South China Sea at present that
justified "raising a hubbub".
Yang did not address Vietnam by name. But he made efforts to imply that critics
that sided with outsiders against China would suffer the disapproval of their
Those countries that trumpeted the "South China Sea
problem" didn't realize that this meeting gave China a platform for its
proposals on the South China Sea issue. The representatives of ten or more
Asian countries congratulated China. They said that Minister Yang's remarks had
excited the aspirations of the Asian people and made them feel proud.
Yang's most significant statements were probably about the United States. He
Whether or not the South China Sea issue would become a
conspicuous issue at the ASEAN foreign ministers' conference in Hanoi was a
matter to which the Chinese delegation paid great attention. Because a series
of trends in the United States and other countries had led us to anticipate
this. As expected, the US side did not pay attention to China's remonstrances.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking from a prepared text, talked
big about the relation of the South China Sea to American interests, talked big
about the pressing importance of preserving freedom of navigation in the South
China Sea, talked big about opposing "threats" in the South China Sea ... This
seemingly impartial talk was actually an attack on China ...
observers who take consolation from the impression that things are only bad
with China in the military sphere should note that China's foreign minister is
accusing the United States of a premeditated diplomatic attack on China.
And, no matter what one thinks about the fate of the rocks and sandbars of the
Spratly Islands, Yang is right about US motives for raising the South China Sea
Is the United States purposefully antagonizing China out of pique? Is it
setting the stage for a serious confrontation in the event of a succession
crisis in North Korea? Or is it preparing international opinion for
China-targeted sanctions over Iran?
After all, now that the European Union has imposed more stringent sanctions on
Iran - and Iran has floated the idea of removing a significant amount of its
international financial transactions out of the realm of the dollar and euro by
denominating its China energy trade in yuan - there is going to be pressure on
the US to protect its allies by keeping China's paws out of the Iranian honey
The interesting question is, as US General David Petraeus famously put it, "How
does this end?"
And to what end? What does the US expect to gain by broadening and deepening
the antagonism between Beijing and Washington?
Presumably, we'll learn the answer in the next few months.