Where does President Obama Go in His Second Term?
Barack Obama’s decision to steer his foreign policy more toward Asia could face sharp challenges when it comes to the South China Sea. That’s where China is squaring off with some of its neighbors over who has sovereignty over the maritime region and its potentially vast oil and mineral riches.
So far the disputes have been relatively peaceful, even though China has sent naval patrols into areas its neighbors say is their sovereign territory. Now the rivalry enters a new phase as the Philippines takes its dispute with China to the United Nations.
“We want the [Law of the Sea] tribunal to establish the rights of the Philippines to exclusively exploit the resources in our continental shelf in the West Philippine Sea,” says Philippine Assistant Foreign Affairs Secretary Gilbert Asuque.
China says the dispute is strictly between Beijing and Manila and that the Philippines’ move only makes the issue more difficult to resolve.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters,” says Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei. “The key and root of the dispute over the South China Sea between China and the Philippines is territorial disputes caused by the Philippines’ illegal occupation of some of the Chinese islets and atolls.”
China’s many maritime disputes
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all have conflicting claims across more than 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan.
Cato Institute foreign policy studies director Justin Logan says China is trying “as much as possible to keep this bilateral — between itself and all the disputed parties — and to prevent it from being internationalized in a systematic way. So what the Philippines have done is to move toward internationalizing it in a systematic way.”
The way Manila sees it, it might have a better chance in an international forum rather than butting heads with the regional superpower. But even if Manila wins at the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, who would enforce the ruling?
“If enforcing findings means a shooting war with China, you may see findings that go unenforced,” Logan says.
However the Beijing-Manila dispute works out, Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations says there is “no room for complacency” if President Obama is serious about pressing a new emphasis on Asia – what Washington foreign policy experts have called the “Asia Pivot.”
Economy says the president needs to finish the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and restock the region with U.S. military personnel and hardware. If he doesn’t complete those tasks first, she says, Mr. Obama runs “the real risk that the pivot will prove without real substance and the naysayers―those who keep questioning the long-term commitment of the United States to the Asia-Pacific―will win the day.”
To complicate matters further, the president’s rivals questioned his handling of the South China Sea issue and China in general during confirmation hearings for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to be his second-term secretary of state.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said the Obama administration cannot let China go unchecked.
“China is being increasingly aggressive about their territorial claims and their neighbors are looking to the United States and U.S. leadership as a counterbalance,” Rubio warned.
But Kerry sought to counter that by saying he was “not convinced that an increased military ramp-up is critical yet.”
“We have a lot more bases out there than any other nation in the world, including China today,” Kerry said. “We have a lot more forces out there than any other nation in the world, including China today.”
Jacques deLisle, East Asia studies director at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says part of the problem is that the United States and China have very different perceptions about their own actions in the South China Sea region.
Perception is key
“The U.S. views it’s doing stuff that is inoffensive, and China sees it as aggressive,” deLisle said. “So what China then does, the U.S. sees as aggressive — an attempt to acquire force-projection capabilities and area-access-denial capabilities — which the U.S. sees as trying to change a status quo in which there is an order that has worked for everybody.”
And Princeton University professor Gilbert Rozman believes tensions over the South China Sea could cause problems between Washington and Beijing in other areas as well.
“China is playing a very different game now,” Rozman says. “The struggle has really intensified. And if the U.S. doesn’t back down in its cooperation with Japan or the Philippines, the U.S. can expect a price to be paid on other issues including North Korea.”
Rozman says Manila’s decision to take the maritime dispute to the United Nations clearly escalates the standoff. He worries that it will put pressure on Washington to do something. As of now, he says, China is “blaming the U.S. for stirring up the trouble.”
Political science professor Chu Shulong of Tsinghua University in China says Beijing has reason to blame Washington, in part because of a speech outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made in 2010 focusing attention on the rival claims over the South China Sea.
“Yes, there always has been a troubled, disputed area, but the tension was not as high before Hillary [Clinton's] speech in 2010,” he said. “And we certainly see that affect, that reality that the U.S. has caused the higher tensions by focusing on disputed issues in the South China Sea.”