Conflict is boiling in the South China Sea once again. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton startled Beijing last week when she declared that the United States have a “national interest” in seeking to mediate a dispute which pits China against virtually all other maritime states in the region. The Chinese, of course, were furious about what they see as American meddling in their sphere of interest and would rather settle the matter with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bilaterally.
Speaking at an ASEAN summit in Hanoi, Vietnam last Friday, Clinton stressed that while the United States intend to remain neutral, they have an interest in preserving free shipping in the region and are willing to facilitate multilateral talks.
The issue involves some two hundred islands and coral outcroppings which are claimed by Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China has always insisted that its exclusive economic zone extends far into the South China Sea and claims all islands as its territory.
While the official Chinese response to Clinton’s offer was mild though positively agitated, newspapers have been less diplomatic. China’s Global Times complained of an “American shadow” over the South China Sea, questioning Clinton’s motives and warning ominously that “China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.” The Xinhua News Agency was similarly belligerent, alleging that the United States were stirring conflict in the region only to extend their influence. “By claiming American national interests in the South China Sea, Washington intends to expand its involvement in an ocean area tens of thousands of miles away from America.” Foreign interference, according to the state news agency, “will only […] hinder a smooth resolution of the thorny issue.”
The two powers have clashed in the South China Sea several times before. Most recently, in March of last year, the USNS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance ship which the Chinese accused of spying, was harassed by Chinese vessels 75 miles off the coast of Hainan Island, site to a large, underground submarine base. The Pentagon lodged a formal complaint; the Chinese complained in turn that the Impeccable had been cruising in its exclusive economic zone; President Barack Obama sent the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon to the area to protect the Impeccable.
American frustration with China’s determination to maintain predominance in the South China Sea is not Beijing’s foremost concern however. Washington, after all, needs Chinese support for sanctions against Iran and, more importantly, for action against North Korea. It won’t upset China too much about a few little islands which, really, America has nothing to do with and risk losing China’s already lukewarm support internationally.
Considering the fast improving trade relations between China and the member states of ASEAN, the former has a much greater interest in keeping its direct neighbors at bay. Without foreign support however, these countries are hardly capable of making a stand.
The Philippines in particular realize that they can’t take on China alone and have been pushing America to take their side. Clinton’s remarks at the ASEAN summit were something of a minor victory for Filipino diplomacy.
The Vietnamese, meanwhile, have shown an interest in the Quadrilateral Initiative which Australia, India, Japan and the United States launched in May 2007 in Manilla to counterbalance China’s naval potential. Last April, Vietnamese officials visited the USS John C. Stennis near Con Dao island off the Mekong Delta coast, chatting with US sailors about “strengthening mutual understanding” and “cooperating for peace in the region and world.” Although communist like China, relations between the two countries haven’t much improved since the brief Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. Border disputes and regional rivalry continue to be cause for mutual mistrust.
Finally, Japan has also been working to strengthen relations with other East Asian powers, including India, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, “over a variety of issues,” notes Kyle Mizokami at Japan Security Watch, “from piracy to the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan, with everything from soft power humanitarian visits to footwork by foreign and defense ministers.”
Clinton’s offer to mediate may have been quite sincere but coupled with perceived naval incursions in previous years, it’s not unnatural for some Chinese to presume otherwise. The United States should stand by its allies in Southeast Asia to prevent China from asserting itself in the region all too prematurely but there’s no need to congest the South China Sea with half of the Pacific Fleet. It’s a precarious balancing act, assuring both China and its neighbors that America favors neither at the expense of the other, but a highly important one at the same time.