Home > Uncategorized > South China Sea: Let’s get it straight, it’s not new Chinese aggression, it’s new US policy.

South China Sea: Let’s get it straight, it’s not new Chinese aggression, it’s new US policy.

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.)

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  1. August 13th, 2010 at 14:17 | #1

    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.

  2. raffiaflower
    August 14th, 2010 at 06:23 | #2

    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.

  3. Padtai
    August 16th, 2010 at 02:36 | #3

    Asian problems should be solved by Asian people, kick the foreign busybody out!

  4. August 18th, 2010 at 19:03 | #4

    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.

  5. August 19th, 2010 at 02:04 | #5

    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.

  6. October 19th, 2010 at 11:11 | #6

    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”:

    AGAINST the backdrop of US State Secretary Hillary Clinton’s statement in Hanoi last July that it is in the “national interest” of the United States that freedom of navigation be maintained in the South China Sea, diplomatic observers were anticipating a strongly worded reference on that issue in the joint statement that would be released after the 2nd Asean-US held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York last Saturday.

    The official statement simply said: “We re-affirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international maritime law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

    There was no mention of South China Sea!

    What happened? We saw two drafts of the statement and they both revolved around the South China Sea which China announced last March as part of its “core sovereignty interest” at par with Tibet and Taiwan. That means China will not hesitate to use force to protect that “core sovereignty interest.”

    Perhaps alarmed by China’s declaration about the South China which it claims wholly, Vietnam, chairman of this year’s Asean meeting and one of those that claim parts of the area, put in the agenda in the South China Sea in the last Asian Regional Forum last July.

    The ARF is composed of 10 Asean countries – Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia. Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam – and their 17 dialogue partners namely, Australia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Japan, Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor Leste, and the United States.

    It was where Clinton said that “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

    She also said that the United States supports “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.”

    Diplomatic observers see it as a new direction for US policy.

    Clinton’s remark, as expected drew sharp response from China. China’s Foreign Ministry posted a statement on its web site saying that Clinton’s statements are “virtually an attack on China” and that there is “no problem” with the freedom of navigation and security in the region.

    The drafting of the statement that Asean leaders including President Aquino and US President Barack Obama showed the dynamics between Asean and the US, complete with its cultural sensitivities and political pragmatism.

    An early draft we saw looked like a US initiative. It said, “We re-affirmed the importance of freedom of navigation, regional stability, respect for international law and unimpeded commerce under lawful conditions in the South China Sea. Asean and the United States share these interests with other maritime nations, including the SCS claimants and the broader international community. The US expressed support for the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and encouraged the parties to reach agreement on a full code of conduct. Further, Asean and the United States oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in the South China Sea.”

    Asean submitted an alternative: “”We re-affirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea.”

    In the end, South China Sea was deleted. A source privy to the drafting of the statement said it was the consensus of all parties that, “It’s best that we don’t specify South China Sea.”

    We guess this was what National Security Council Director for Asia Jeffrey Bader as “exquisite balance” between maritime security and not creating a new venue for US-China tension.

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