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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 4, 2011

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Southeast Asia rises in US reset
By Peter Lee

The United States is rolling out a shift in its Asian security focus from North Asia to South Asia, while taking pains to assert that the policy is based on working with China, not against it.

At the same time, the Chinese government has decided to make an extremely public display of its boorish South China Sea policy, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate US irrelevance in the region. Beijing's policy may accomplish the exact opposite effect.
On May 26, Chinese patrol boats intentionally severed a seismic cable towed by a Vietnamese survey vessel working about 120 miles (193 kilometers) offshore of Vietnam and hundreds of miles

south of China's Hainan Island.

The incident occurred about well within Vietnam's 200 nautical miles (370 km) wide Exclusive Economic Zone as defined by the Law of the Sea Treaty (signed by both Vietnam and China). To cut the cable 30 meters below the waterline, the Chinese patrol boat may have been equipped with a special rig, arguing a significant degree of premeditation and planning.

A provocation?

China's official response did little to ease doubts, or reduce tensions. To emphasize China's intransigence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu's May 28 remarks were reproduced under a separate heading on the Ministry's homepage:
China holds a consistent and clear-cut position on the South China Sea issue. China opposes Vietnam's oil and gas exploration activities within the waters under the jurisdiction of China which undermine China's rights and interests as well as jurisdiction over the South China Sea and violate the bilateral consensus on the South China Sea issue. Actions taken by China's competent authorities are regular maritime law enforcement and surveillance activities in the waters under the jurisdiction of China.

China has been committed to peace and stability of the South China Sea. We stand ready to make joint efforts with relevant parties to seek proper solutions to relevant disputes and conscientiously implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, with a view to safeguarding the stability of the South China Sea in real earnest.
The incensed Vietnamese government called a weekend press conference, where its spokesperson responded:
I stress that Vietnam totally rejects all of the claims that China made on May 28 ...

China is deliberately misleading the public by attempting to describe an undisputed area as a disputed one.

China has violated our common understanding. China has called for peaceful resolution, but it's actions are complicating the situation in the East Sea. [1]
The Chinese action was recorded in a two and one half minute videotape made from the Vietnamese ship, inevitably evoking memories of last year's maritime outrage: Senkaku-gate, the collision of a Chinese fishing vessel with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels off the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands.

Last year, the US jumped into the issue on Japan's side, declaring that the Senkakus were covered by the US-Japan security treaty and thereby implying, however implausibly, that the United States was ready to go to war with China over these remote Taiwanese rocks.

The incident attracted heightened attention because the United States had announced its ''return to Asia'' on the back of the issue of maritime security, in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's words, "a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea".

2011 is, apparently, different.

On May 31, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and had the opportunity to flay the Chinese for their latest piece of high-handedness in the South China Sea ... but chose not to.

When asked by Malaysia's China Press if the United States had ''any position'' on the most recent incident, Campbell responded:
Almost every week we see incidents of various kinds (laughter), between fishing vessels ... between scientific vessels...prospecting ships...and the like. Our general policy remains the same. We discourage a resort to violence in these circumstances, or threats, and we want to see a process of dialogue emerge. We communicate intensively and privately with a variety of states associated with the South China Sea side [sic] and I think we are going to continue to do that as we go forward. [2]
In Kuala Lumpur, Admiral Robert Willard used the same phrasing in discussing Vietnam's gripes with China: The ''United States doesn't take sides in a dispute,'' Willard said. ''It's strongly committed to see that the sides within the dispute handle them peacefully and through dialogue and not in confrontation at sea or in the air.''

Assistant Secretary Campbell's seemingly dismissive response is rather striking when reports of a plethora of recent alleged Chinese intrusions in the South China Sea are taken into account.

As it responded to the Chinese sabotage of its seismic vessel, Vietnam alleged another incident of harassment of a survey ship, and publicized allegations that hundreds of Chinese fishing boats are evading a Chinese government fishing ban by fishing in disputed waters off the Vietnamese coast, driving away Vietnamese vessels. [3]

Concurrently, the Philippines protested ''six or seven'' intrusions in the last few months by Chinese vessels and construction activity in disputed waters around the Spratly Islands and, in one case, the area around Palawan, which is apparently not part of the well-worn islands dispute.

In contrast to its middle-finger disdain for Vietnam, China is making some efforts to keep the bilateral negotiation ball rolling with the Philippines.

However, the Philippine government has apparently reached the conclusion that bilateral engagement with China is an excessively one-sided exercise.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino conceded late Wednesday that even in boxing, a sport where Filipinos excel, ''we are no match against them [China] even on one-on-one.''

''We are only 95 million [Filipinos] but there are 1.5 billion [Chinese],'' Aquino remarked in jest in trying to explain to reporters here the realities of asserting Philippine claims on the oil-rich island chains.

Aquino said any statements on the claims would always be counterproductive as it would not help the long-standing problem among claimant-nations in the Spratlys.

''Tensions will just increase if we engage in a verbal jostle. If they [the Chinese government] lose face, how will they compromise?'' he asked. [4]

All this activity is occurring in a rather significant context: the annual run of Southeast Asian meetings, beginning with the Shangri La Conference of defense ministers in Singapore, that last year became a post-Cheonan flash point for US and South Korean anger with China, Asian dissatisfaction with China, and China's resentment with US for its meddling in its relations with Asia.

This year, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will attend again. China's Chief of Staff General Liang Guangjie will also be there, the highest-ranking Chinese official to attend the conference in its history.

Both sides seem to be keen to demonstrate that US-China relations and military exchanges are back on an even keel after last year's tensions.

China's calculated high-handedness with Vietnam and the Philippines is perhaps a sign that it wants to claim the South China Sea as its turf, and declare that the United States does not have the regional standing to make China's hijinks in its watery ''near beyond'' a central issue in the ostensibly improved US-China relationship.

''Multi-lateralism'' or ''internationalization'' of South China Sea issues, especially with US input, is anathema to China, which is determined to keep all such discussions on a favorable, bilateral footing.

In May, General Liang was dispatched for a tour of Southeast Asia that included stops in Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. In each country, he obtained statements, presumably of dubious sincerity concerning their willingness to discuss key issues, such as the South China Sea problem, with China bilaterally.

One can also expect that an important purpose of Liang's visit was to demonstrate that China's engagement with Southeast Asia, be it beneficial or inimical, was a matter of sustained national will and capability that the United States government - beset by debt, declining foreign aid budgets, and a somewhat overstretched military - might be hard-pressed to match.

China appears to hope that its ostentatious firmness with Vietnam will dispel any illusions that ASEAN expressions of joint resolve will change China's actions in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has been vociferous in its insistence that the issue get a workout according to international law - an approach that would presumably offer China and its absurd nine-dashed line position on the South China Sea considerable difficulty. [5]

The endgame to Vietnam's non-stop legal strategizing is the hope of a referral to the United Nations carrying the combined weight of a united ASEAN and US support.

Continued 1 2 

US, China vie for influence among Indonesian riches
(May 6, '11)

America's Plan B for North Korea ... Track II (Apr 16, '11)

  Pakistan: Silencing the truth-seekers

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3. Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan strike

4. Pakistan marches to Saudi Arabia's tune

5. Survival trumps all for Assad

6. The secret life of Arabia

7. Target: Saleem

8. Humpty Obumpty and the Arab Spring

9. Russia frets over Eurasian domino theory

10. Why is he not alive?

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jun 2, 2011 )

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