Sea strife follows Obama in Asia
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - US President Barack Obama's late April visit to Asia, where he met leaders of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, was aimed at reassuring allies in the region of Washington's commitment to serving as an anchor of stability in Asia. But Obama's tour may have had the opposite effect.
From China's perspective, Obama's stated commitments to the security of its allies represent a thinly veiled encirclement strategy aimed at containing its influence. In apparent response, Beijing has again aggressively asserted its claims over contested maritime areas, this time by dispatching a US$1 billion deep-water oil drilling rig to an area near the Paracel Islands that is
claimed by Vietnam as part of its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
[The rig is located roughly 17 nautical miles south of Triton Island, the southwestern-most land feature in the Paracels, and within the EEZ China demarcates based on its claim to the islands, the northern portion of which it has controlled since the mid-1950s and the southern portion since 1974, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor of political science M Taylor Fravel, who studies Chinese territorial issues.]
Vietnamese officials claimed, backed up by video, that Chinese ships rammed and fired water cannons at their vessels sent to the contested area, attacks that allegedly damaged several boats and injured at least six people. They said Chinese ships continued the offensive actions for three consecutive days, while Vietnamese ships exercised restraint.
Against the backdrop of rising tensions, the recently concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Myanmar was predominantly focused on establishing multilateral mechanisms to prevent an armed conflict in the South China Sea. Under new Secretary General Le Luong Minh, a former Vietnamese diplomat, ASEAN has called for a more robust regional response to the ongoing disputes, specifically the establishment of a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.
In recent months, Minh has consistently underscored the importance of resolving the disputes in accordance with international law, specifically provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In an interview on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, he emphasized the need for both sides to step up their diplomatic efforts, while criticizing China for not fully committing to a multilateral resolution of the disputes: "On ASEAN's [part], we have made great efforts. [But] We [also] need efforts on the part of China."
China has apparently sought to justify its latest maneuver as a logical response to what it views as "provocative" and "destabilizing" actions by the United States and its allies in the region.
"From Tokyo to Manila, Obama has tried to pick his words so as not to antagonize Beijing. But from the US-Japan joint statement to the new US-Philippines defense agreement, it is increasingly obvious that Washington is taking Beijing as an opponent," wrote China's state-run newspaper, China Daily, which is generally noted for more measured language vis-a-vis the US. "With Obama reassuring the US' allies of protection in any conflict with China, it is now clear that Washington is no longer bothering to conceal its attempt to contain China's influence in the region."
Although Washington claims neutrality in regard to the ongoing territorial disputes, and has no treaty obligation to Vietnam, it has come under pressure to respond to China's latest actions. The US State Department has expressed its strong concern "about dangerous conduct and intimidation by vessels in the disputed area", and has called upon "all parties to conduct themselves in a safe and appropriate manner, exercise restraint, and address competing sovereignty claims peacefully, diplomatically, and in accordance with international law".
During his trip to Asia, Obama pledged the US's categorical military support to Japan if a conflict were to erupt over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, strengthening the Shinzo Abe administration's leverage in diplomatic efforts to de-escalate bilateral tensions with China.
Since October, China has scaled back its paramilitary patrols to contested islands in the East China Sea. At the same time, Beijing has dispatched Hu Deping, a close friend of President Xi Jinping and son of the late reformist leader Hu Yaobang, as a special informal envoy to Tokyo, where he has reportedly met top Japanese officials, including Abe. Japan is meanwhile beefing up its own military capabilities and relaxing its long-held, self-imposed restrictions on arms exports.
In the East China Sea, the balance of power has slightly shifted in favor of Japan, which has, in turn, encouraged China to more seriously consider a diplomatic rather than military course. In the South China Sea, however, China continues to enjoy a considerable strategic advantage, which allows Beijing to believe it can push the envelope without risking a major reaction.
As the top trading partner of almost all Southeast Asian countries, with the notable exception of the Philippines, China enjoys tremendous economic leverage over its neighbors. That's factored into ASEAN's inability until now to develop a united front on the South China Sea disputes.
Aside from the Philippines, which has a mutual defense treaty with the US, none of the Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea enjoys a formal military alliance with any major external power, further accentuating the huge power asymmetry between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
During Obama's visit to Manila on April 28-29, the Philippines and US signed a new defense pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which will accord American troops long-term, inexpensive rotational access to Philippine bases. The agreement deepens the US's strategic footprint in Asia, enhancing its ability to respond to regional crises in a more decisive and timely fashion. Still, the Obama administration has consistently refused to offer unequivocal military support to the Philippines over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
"Today, we reaffirm the importance of resolving territorial disputes in the region peacefully without intimidation or coercions," Obama said during his visit to Manila, where he reiterated Washington's unwillingness to take a formal position on the sovereignty of disputed South China Sea territories. "My hope is that, at some point, we're going to be able to work cooperatively with China as well. Because our goal here is simply to make sure that everybody is operating in a peaceful, responsible fashion."
In contrast to the Philippines and Japan, Vietnam has studiously avoided an outright diplomatic confrontation with China over disputed territories in the western Pacific. Intent on preserving its national independence and neutrality in international affairs, Vietnam has relied on a flexible network of strategic partners, ranging from Russia and India to the US and Japan, to push back against China.
Over the years, Vietnam has painstakingly maintained bilateral communication channels with China, holding successive rounds of high-level negotiations over disputed territories in the South China Sea, especially in regard to the Paracel chain of islands. In parallel, Vietnam has invested in regional mechanisms such as ASEAN to manage its tensions with China over contested territories in the Spratly islands further south.
When the Philippines filed an arbitration case on March 30 against China before a United Nations Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague, Vietnam was conspicuously quiet. Wary of China's sensitivities, Vietnam largely fell short of threatening a similar legal action against Beijing. Thus, from Hanoi's perspective, China's recent move to dispatch an oil drilling rig, accompanied by an armada of Chinese paramilitary vessels, to Vietnam's claimed EEZ was entirely unprovoked.
Although Vietnam is not a US treaty ally, China's latest move demonstrates its willingness to test the limits of America's commitment to preserve freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Hanoi stood firm to the provocation by dispatching some 30 vessels, to which China responded by ramming and firing water cannons at the Vietnamese boats. Ngo Ngoc Thu, the vice commander of Vietnam's coast guard, was quoted in wire reports saying that "all restraint had a limit" and "If they continue to ram into us, we will respond with similar self-defense".
Adding to regional tensions, the Philippine marine forces captured a Chinese fishing boat allegedly catching endangered species within the Philippines' EEZ. China called for the immediate release of the apprehended Chinese citizens, so far to no avail.
At the same time, 5,500 Filipino and American troops participated in the 10-day annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) joint-military exercise. Although the exercises were officially about enhancing interoperability between Filipino and US forces on piracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster response-related operations, the timing, scale, and nature of the activities also clearly sent a strong message of Philippine-US cooperation vis-a-vis China.
Meanwhile, Filipino and Vietnamese diplomats vigorously pushed ASEAN to dissuade China from further provocative action. In recent years, ASEAN founding members such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia have expressed concern over China's territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea.
While Malaysia has stepped up its diplomatic coordination with the Philippines and Vietnam in recent months, Indonesia recently openly questioned China's "nine-dash-line" doctrine delineating its maritime claims in the region, arguing it has no basis in international law and encroaches on Indonesia's Riau province, which covers the hydro-carbon Natuna Island chain.
As ASEAN's current chairman, Myanmar has shown a surprising ability to play a constructive role in the resolution of the disputes. Amid domestic political reforms, Myanmar has successfully diversified its foreign relations, with ever-deepening economic and political linkages with Japan and Western countries. As a result, Myanmar has reduced its historical dependence on China and is now in a stronger position to withstand external pressure by any one country.
Eager to display its emergence as a credible and effective member of the grouping, Myanmar is eager to bridge differences between China, on one hand, and ASEAN countries as well as the Western powers on the other. Although the ASEAN summit's final statement fell short of naming China as the culprit behind regional tensions, it nevertheless explicitly reflected a shared regional concern about the recent escalation in the South China Sea. Differences at an ASEAN summit in the summer of 2012 over how to handle the topic of the South China Sea led to disarray when under Cambodia's chairmanship an ASEAN Ministerial Meeting failed to agree on a joint statement for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history.
For its part, Beijing reiterated that it has no outstanding problem with ASEAN as a whole, and argued that the ongoing disputes are bilateral in nature and confined to few Southeast Asian countries, mainly the Philippines and Vietnam.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science and the author of the upcoming book How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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