US Asia Pivot Facing Troubled South China Sea

Posted January 29th, 2013 at 10:13 pm (UTC+0)

China claims vast maritime areas in the South China Sea, including waters also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and others. Map: VOA

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.

Gilbert Asuque, assistant foreign affairs secretary of the Philippines, says the U.N. law of the sea tribunal should decide the issue. Photo: AP

“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.”

Unfinished business

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.”

John Kerry, confirmed by the Senate Jan. 29, 2013, to become the new U.S. secretary of state, now inherits the South China Sea issue from outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photo: AP

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 blames outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shown here at an appearance in Washington Jan. 29, 2013, for stirring up opposition to its South China Sea claims. Photo: AP

“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.”


21 responses to “US Asia Pivot Facing Troubled South China Sea”

  1. Philippines did the right thing in refering the territorial dispute with China regarding the Scrborough Shoal. China is professing one on one negotiations with all countries with which China has territorial disputes. But most of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea is multilaSeral and one on one negotiations does not solve the disputes. The Scarborough shoal is also claimed by Taiwan.

    China want to continue the disputes to its advantage, threatening other countries with show of its military might, at the same time fishing in the troubled waters. Other countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei should also refer their territorial disputes with China to UNCLOS to solve the tension in the South China Sea. If China has any sincerety to solve their territorial disputes, they should also join other countries for international arbitration, rather than professing one on one negotiations.

    China’s territorial dispute with India is not settled even after more than six decades of one on one negotiations. China is always increasing its claims over Indian territory while continuing the so called one on one nagotiations with India. At this rate it will take centuries of negotiations with China to solve all the territorial disputes in the South China Sea by one on one negotiations of multilateral teritorial disputes.

    The US is required to defend the small countries in the Pacific Rim because of treaty obligations and mutual relations in case China pose a military threat to them. But whether Obama and Kerry can stand up to the demands of national security, international treaty obligations and foreign relations are doubtful.

    • Henry says:

      Do you know that US does not recognize UNCLOS and the 200Mile EEZ?

      The Chinese are arguing that because of US treaty obligations with Philippines resulted in embolden their stands against China. All I know is that oil is close to 100 bucks a barrel and I am paying 4 bucks a gallon at the pump. Why can’t Philippines and China jointly explore that region for oil?

      • william yeh says:

        Philippines and China jointly explore that region for oil good idea but do you think they really want that. China has been saying that a lot of times. But are you aware that our fishermen are being harassed in that area.. do you think if we say yes to them they will control everything. Take note only Chinese fishermen are free to fish at south china sea. And you think it fair. US and other fully developed countries do not recognize UNCLOS and the 200Mile EEZ because they have the capability to fish in international waters. UNCOS would only give them limitation. What we are fighting for is what the law provides. Why don’t you go to that disputed area so you would know the truth.

  2. The Philippines move to internationalize these kind of issues is right ’cause if our govn’t and the govn’t of PROC will talk bilaterally, well i think we will be lossing. China is a cleaver. And as i know, if the territory was well w/in the 200 nautical mile exclussive economic zone of every country, that country has the right to claim the said territory. We’ve hope that the UN is the great equalizer for this kind of issue. China must respect our sovereinty irrespective for what they big they are or their baval power.

  3. Mario Alvaro says:

    The reason why the Philippines went to International Court is because the US is shying away from its commitment to our Mutual Defense Treaty.

    It was the one who asked the Philippines to create an incident at Scarborough Shoal against China to justify its pivot back to Asia, then it leaves the Philippines to fend for its own.

  4. JL says:

    China claimed US increased tensions in region is an absurd. China has been cleverly used ecomonic and diplomatic and even military to force an coecion against smaller countries in the past to robbed their territorial waters and islands. China now can not get what it want any more because US and the world are watching and indirect involving so chinese blamed America for their misbehavoir and misdeed.

  5. JL says:

    Just looking at the map: anyone could see who cause all the tensions and troubles in Asia.

  6. […] Tensions In Asia Increase As US Prepares Foreign Policy Pivot The Obama administration’s plans for a foreign policy pivot toward Asia is looking more complicated as relations in the region splinter. […]

  7. Walt Peterson says:

    China’s end-game could be to intimidate Taiwan into peacefully accepting PRC’s “protection” after asserting its claims to all surrounding islands in the East China and South China seas.

  8. Henry says:

    It’s hard to get creditability when US does not recognize UNCLOS and the 200mile EEZ stated in the organization. China is labeled a bully because of its economic might and military superiority now but when China’s navy was non-existent in the 60s and 70s. China had the same claims in the SCS as it did now. Just funny no one seems to acknowledge that fact.

    Philippines and China have overlapping claims in SCS. Unfortunately Philippines also have overlapping claims with Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia. Good luck on getting the UN to take sides on this issue.

    Ultimately, I think this will be nothing but a small moral victory for the Philippines, but unfortunately I don’t look at it that way at all. Since “asking” the US military to leave Philippines 20 years ago, Filipinos and their government did nothing to improve their navy. There is really no one to blame except Aquino, Arroyo and Aquino’s mom.

  9. Fran says:

    Do people know that EEZ cannot be applied to justify land claims. It will be … chaos if all the island nations in the Caribbean Sea make the same claim.

  10. Ermie says:

    but at least U.S. has shown its commitment to defend Philippines by bringing its forces over South China Sea. The Tubataha Reef incident, hopefully be successful way to bring the U.S. forces unnoticed.

  11. william yeh says:

    Sometimes too much education detach a person from the common truth. His over rational mind start dictating truth with easy solution but unfair result. I’m Chinese, but I know China’s action is wrong. I Don’t know why Scott Stearns see things differently.

    • Fran says:

      1) “… too much education detach a person from the common truth” This statement of yours is absurd.
      2) You claim you are Chinese, probably you are a Filipino national with a Chinese name or Chinese father at best. Your previous posting has revealed your true identity. You have lost all your credibility in this forum.

      • william yeh says:

        Yes, my father is a Chinese nation and so am I. I was raise in the Philippines. I have an ACR No (Alien Certificate No) in the Philippines. I don’t see why I lost all my credibility for being a Chinese and favouring the Philippines in going to UNCOS. Can I not speak against a country that follows a law that is self-serving?
        I said sometimes. In not speaking in general. Food to a well educated person can represent something to enjoy but for an ordinary person it can mean survival and he has no other choice . That is why UNCOS is a very good equalizer. If Rozman thinks that Manila’s decision to take the maritime dispute to the United Nations clearly escalates the standoff. Them what does he think about Chinese sending 4 to five coast guard with lots of fishing boat against one.

        • Fran says:

          Credibility is not automatically given; it is something one has to earn. If you still don’t get it, it makes no points for you to comment back.

          Your reference to fishing boat appropriately proves my point. Do you feel the same when your country sent its largest Filipino WARSHIP in the navy to harass some unarmed fishermen last April?

  12. william yeh says:

    sorry. Gilbert Rozman and not Scott Stearns.

  13. Ben H S, RN says:

    “IF” only the US President allowed General D McArhtur to do what he wanted to do during the Korean War. We shouldn’t have problem with North Korea and mainland China today.

  14. QFR says:

    Asia Pivot doesn’t work for the American public, unless you are a defence contractor.

  15. rory mc carthy says:

    U.S will voice protest and political condemnations as China tightens its grip on the disputed islands and shoals.It will not intervene militarily.So the bottom line question is; is it worth losing thousands of Filipino lives just to prove a moral right.

    The Philippine Government is correct to bring the matter to the U.N. Diplomatic pressure can ensure China will observe that ruling if many countries threaten trade sanctions .Remember China needs international markets otherwise it reverts to the dark closeted days..

  16. Bob says:

    First of all south China Sea is a vast region with abundance of undisclosed natural resources and unfortunatenely and unlike other part of the continental shelf in the world in that South China Sea is adjacent by so many sovereign countries including the US of A and that is the bulk of the discussion here. China in a brute show of force wanted to demonstrate to its neighbors that in second to the USA, Sino is the best player in the area for years of experiences and a most populous nation in the area. As such it is by the laws of the sea, China acts as though the recognition to the undeniable 12 nautical miles limit from the shoreline of any of its neighbors hence outside of that boundary China has a right as to anyone in the international water or the high-seas. And we all know Chinese marine fleet like to showboat and shoulder with anyone out there. If I am right here and it is clear with everyone, let set the play field then let all play and may the best wins.

Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns is VOA’s State Department correspondent. He has worked as VOA’s Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief since beginning his career as a freelance reporter in the Liberian civil war. He has written for the BBC, UPI, the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Post, and The Economist. Scott has a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.



January 2013
« Oct   Feb »