Increased maritime Incidents Cited
Rival claims to the South China Sea by China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines “are going to go through a period of higher tensions, no matter what,” according to senior State Department official traveling in Asia with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The countries of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have to get used to periods of intensity and focus,” the U.S. official told reporters. “We are not going to be able to go back to situations in which things were easy, and that decisions were made without certain amounts of strain. I think this is the new normal.”
That certainly seemed to be the case when Clinton visited Beijing this week as part of her tour of the region to calm tensions over the South China Sea. She found little appetite for compromise during her meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi. After their talks, Yang cited what he said was “plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence” for Chinese sovereignty over South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters.
China wants to deal with each of its rivals one-on-one and is moving to exploit competing claims within ASEAN to keep its members divided. The United States, meanwhile, is trying to foster a unified ASEAN code of conduct in the dispute with China.
“All of this requires hard work, heavy lifting, very challenging discussions,” the senior U.S. official said. “ASEAN has generally been content to sort of skate on the surface and to avoid debates. These issues are going to be much more difficult to deal with.”
Tensions over the South China Sea seem to spike in patterns: 1987, 1995, 2004.
“I think the spikes are probably going to come more regularly, and probably have a more intense duration,” the senior State Department official said. “Obviously, our desire is to see these matters dealt with peacefully and diplomatically. But I do think we have to be prepared for more tension.”
That may be especially so because China is pouring more money into its navy to counter the U.S. pivot of military, diplomatic, and economic resources to Asia.
“There is a small risk, and I think it’s a growing risk, that an incident at sea could escalate into conflict involving China and one of its neighbors, and I think that’s what we’re all worried about,” said Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute.
According to analyst Robert Kaplan of the Texas-based Stratfor Global Intelligence group, Washington is struggling to maintain balance in the sea.
“Though the United States must prevent China from dominating the South China Sea, it must be careful not to be drawn into a conflict with China at the behest of countries like the Philippines and Vietnam,” Kaplan said.
But the increasingly strident nationalism in Beijing, Hanoi, and Manila is making it harder to keep that balance.
More skirmishes at sea
“The truth is we have many more skirmishes in the South China Sea than people realize,” the senior State Department official said. “Fishing vessels being shot on, bumpings, all sorts of things. The key is that they not escalate.
“There is a very certain and definite rise in nationalism, which triggers issues associated with territory, with history, and with politics. And it is a very potent brew. It leads to really unpredictable circumstances,” the senior official said. “Everyone appreciates right now that the larger effort has to be towards sustaining economic growth in Asia. And then, if you go down this path, everyone is going to be badly hurt.”
At the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, Oriana Skylar Mastro says the Obama administration needs to help raise the standard of behavior for all of the rival claimants.
“The United States should not only communicate that the use of force by claimants is unacceptable, but also that coercive diplomacy of this sort should not be tolerated,” Mastro said.
Secretary Clinton is hoping this weekend’s APEC summit in Vladivostok helps build momentum for a code of conduct to deal with South China Sea issues before November’s East Asia Summit in Cambodia.
But given ASEAN’s failure to make progress at a foreign ministerial meeting in July, analyst Justin Logan of the Washington-based Cato Institute has his doubts.
“I think bringing in different countries will create a different dynamic,” he said. “Although, in all likelihood, many of the countries that were in involved in the first go around will be very, very reticent to get back involved again seeing the sour outcome that happened in ASEAN.”