What’s with the recent hoopla surrounding an ASEAN summit where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to outline a new US policy in the South China Sea and China angrily denouncing her speech as an “ambush”?
Well, it is just that, a new US policy for the South China Sea, one where US asserts its “interests” in the disputed island territories. Washington Hawks welcomed Clinton’s speech as the beginning salvo against China. China denounced it as the new US backed “Asian NATO” to contain China further.
What’s the truth? Who’s the aggressor? What’s the likely outcome?
Well, even the Washington hawks would not deny that they want to “contain China” at the very least, and likely confront China aggressively before China grows too strong. So, at least in that, China is not merely being paranoid in its reaction.
IS this the new US policy to attempt to establish an “Asian NATO”? Perhaps not official US policy, but it sounded like Clinton was hoping that ASEAN member nations would welcome that possibility to balance China’s rising power.
However, contrary to the popular US media reports, ASEAN member states did not all welcome Clinton’s offer.
US media reported that “many” ASEAN nations, including Vietnam, welcomed Clinton’s comments. However, it is well known that the dispute over the territories in the South China Sea has gone on for a long time. China has not changed its claims in the last 6 decades. And majority (more than 1/2) of ASEAN member nations supports the current direction of ASEAN-China negotiations, including a Code of Conduct that China has already signed.
Perhaps very revealing is the comments from Philippines in response to Clinton’s statements. (Philippines is one of the 3 founding nations of ASEAN.) Philippines categorically refused US involvement in ASEAN-China negotiations.
US media seemed to imply that Vietnam’s new “alliance” with US represented the feeling of all ASEAN nations. As backup, they point to the fact that many Asian nations are increasing their spending on military buildup. But let’s pour some cold water on these illusions.
1. Vietnam has wanted for many years to increase trade and better diplomatic relations with US (as much as most Asian nations). The stumbling block was US’s Cold War mentality. Just because US sees a Capitalist Communist China now as a bigger threat than a poorer Communist Vietnam, doesn’t make it that Vietnam suddenly likes US more than China. The economic reality is that Vietnam depends heavily upon China for its trade and foreign investment. And in the era of global recession, China’s influence on Vietnam is far more than military. Vietnam has a staggering 50% debt to GDP ratio. It simply cannot afford to antagonize China.
2. Asian nations’ military buildup is as natural as China’s military buildup. Many of these nations are only recently growing in wealth. It is not a surprise that, like China, these now slightly more wealthy nations would turn their eyes to modernizing their military.
3. Some ASEAN member nations may indeed feel that US can help balance China’s power and influence in negotiations, but that is far from necessarily inviting US to the negotiating table. Because if US (or Russia) sits down at the table, it would turn into a US-China negotiation, ASEAN interests would immediately become secondary and mere bargaining chips between US and China. ASEAN nations are not that stupid.
4. ASEAN will never become an “Asian NATO”. That is a dream scenario, blocked by a long historical memory of Western Imperialism and the Cold War. Unlike Europe, ASEAN nations have never been treated as “equals” by US. Not surprisingly, Philippines, a nation that had the longest history of US colonialism, publicly turned down Clinton’s offer. Even NATO was largely a US dominated organization.
Granted, if actual war breaks out in the disputed ocean, anything could happen. ASEAN could become an “Asian NATO”. Or ASEAN could even fight amongst themselves. But only the foolish would think that China would necessarily be the first aggressor in that conflict. Rest assured, all those new military bought by the ASEAN nations, they are not merely keeping them at home, and none of them are shy about asserting their claims any more than China.
However, things are not as dangerous as US media made them out to be. And US sailing navy ships to Vietnamese docks are no more than symbolic huffs and puffs. (Let’s be honest, there have been more US navy ships that docked in China recently than Vietnam. It doesn’t mean anything practical.)
Of course, Vietnam would love to be able to buy some shiny new US weapons, (so would China.) But still “Communist” Vietnam is still getting blasted by Hillary Clinton for “human rights abuses”, and “Communist” Vietnam is not going to get anything from US newer than the 1980’s. (On the other hand, Vietnam can buy newer military equipment from China!)
But none of this means any kind of increase in US influence in Asia (as US hawks dreamt).
Yes, there is perhaps a more heated territorial dispute between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea. But that hardly translate into a Cold War style standoff between China and a new “Asian NATO”. Nor would it likely lead to it. (It’s simply a silly suggestion.)
U.S. has to worry about driving SCO (i.e. Russia-China cooperation) much stronger than it is today. Vietnam will be pragmatic too to look after its interests. At the end, this is classic U.S. media stupefying the American public. This is also U.S. media cheer-leading belligerence.
Asean was founded on the principle of declaring the region as Zopfan (Zone of Peace, Friendship and Neutrality).
The Philippines, as a founding member with Malaysia and Thailand (whose leaders are something beholden to USA at the moment) is obligated to defend the charter and reject the American overture.
The neutrality bit means that a Nato-style formation allied with one power to counter another is also out of the question.
Asian problems should be solved by Asian people, kick the foreign busybody out!
Ignorning any normative slant on the story (i.e. opining who’s right, who’s wrong), all I know is that the issues in South China Sea will take decades to work out. Every school children in China knows where the South China Sea is. How many school children in the U.S. do? Looking out to 2030, 2040, 2050, I think China will still be very focused on South China Sea. I wonder what the U.S. would be interested in in 2030, 2040, 2050. To compare China’s “national interest” in the South China Sea and a peaceful and prosperous Asia to America’s “national interest” in the same is presposerous.
At the end of that Fora.tv video in your post, “China: A New Hope or A Threat to the World?,” Brandon was asked by the host about U.S. being a world policeman.
He said that after the Cold War, the U.S. military intervention is driven more by “kneejerk reaction” than by any well grounded ideology. He compared that to the Cold War, when the U.S. galvanized the West against this Soviet empire. There was a clear goal and mission that the West could coalesce around.
Claiming someone else’s backyard as a territory of your “national interest” is not convincing – and indeed subject to a problem of lost in interest some time later. Much harder to build a coalition around it. Great point.
So there were talks that the U.S. was really going to muddy the waters in South China Seas in this year’s ASEAN meeting. In the end, sanity triumphed. This is a good summary of what happened to the “ASEAN-U.S. Statement”: