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    Greater China
     Jul 29, 2010
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. [4]

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 constructive manner".

The document stated some general principles but was not legally binding; nor did it provide any dispute-resolution mechanism. [5]

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 Shelf.
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. [6]

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). [7]

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 peacemaker.

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 US.

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 Asian peers:
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 stated:
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 ...
American 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 issue.

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 jar.

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.

1. China, US agree to respect "core interests": diplomat, Reuters, April 6, 2010.
2. American shadow over South China Sea, Global Times, July 26, 2010.
3. China ratcheting up regional tension, Asahi Shimbun, Jul 24, 2010.
4. File:Spratly with flags, Wikipedia.
5. Joint Declaration of ASEAN and China On Cooperation in the Field of Non-traditional Security Issues, Foreign Ministry of China, Nov 4, 2002.
6. US, Vietnam tighten military relationship, DTI News, Jun 9, 2010.
7. Vietnam seeks closer cooperative ties with the US, VoV News, Jul 9, 2010.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

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