South China Sea spat fresh threat to Sino-US ties

China’s angry response to a U.S.-led confrontation over the disputed South China Sea raises the specter of a fresh rift between Beijing and Washington just as wounds from a combative start to the year are healing.

China was furious after it was ambushed at Asia’s top security forum by a discussion of sensitive territorial claims in the South China Sea, an area rich in energy and key for shipping.

Beijing had kept the South China Sea off the agenda of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) for a decade and a half. But last week in a meeting in Hanoi, 12 of the 27 members — including some with no direct stake in the territorial disputes — raised maritime issues.

An angry summary of the meeting was posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website on Sunday evening, eschewing usually opaque diplomatic language to accuse U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of a barely disguised assault on Chinese interests.

“As expected, the U.S. side chose to ignore China’s advice and played up the issue at the meeting,” the statement said.

“The seemingly impartial remarks (by Clinton) were in effect an attack on China and were designed to give the international community a wrong impression that the situation in the South China Sea is a cause for grave concern.”

The statement was repeated the next day in English, ensuring maximum overseas readership for the broadside, and angry editorials in state-run media have also followed. Experts say the fury is not just for show, and threatens already tense ties.

“China is angry. This is the first public U.S. interference over the South China Sea, which the Foreign Ministry sees as an issue between China and Southeast Asian countries,” said Shi Yinhong, International Security professor at Renmin University.

“I think this is quite serious because it dramatically expands the space for disputes between China and the U.S.”

Relations between Beijing and Washington have been getting back on an even keel after a disastrous start to the year, marred by spats over everything from Tibet, self-ruled Taiwan and trade and the value of China’s currency.

But military ties in particular have been slow to recover, and the latest dispute comes hot on the heels of joint U.S.-South Korean military drills in seas near China, directed at North Korea but also criticized repeatedly by Beijing.

“The Obama administration must clearly understand: are they prepared to fully open up an era of friction with China? If they are not then they are certainly giving the impression that they are,” the state-owned but populist Global Times tabloid quoted National Defense University professor Han Xudong saying.


Clinton’s speech marked the public demise of Washington’s old hands-off approach to the South China Sea, though it was foreshadowed in speeches by the U.S. military officials and diplomats who have long feared U.S. strategic interests in the area were being eroded.

China has decades-old disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam over boundaries in the South China Sea, an area key for shipping and possibly rich in oil and gas.

Beijing has for years insisted on handling the disputes — which are serious enough to have sparked sometimes deadly naval clashes — on a one-on-one basis rather than multilaterally, a strategy some have described as “divide and conquer”.

China’s growing confidence, bolstered of late by the relative ease with which it has ridden out the global financial crisis, has led to more assertiveness internationally.

“Some of (the Southeast Asian claimants) mention that the Chinese have gotten much tougher on them in recent months on the issue,” said David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at the George Washington University in Washington.

“I was told by a high-level Singaporean official in May that China has warned them all not to discuss the disputed island even among each other,” he added.

Chinese media even warned fellow Asians after the meeting about embracing the United States too fast, saying they could be sacrificing their interests to a selfish outside power.

“Big countries from other regions…should make efforts to create good external conditions for countries in the region to solve the issue through peaceful negotiations, instead of stirring up trouble and sowing discord in the South China Sea,” the China News Service said in an opinion piece.


The multilateral discussion of the South China Sea was seen first and foremost as a victory for hard-lobbying Vietnamese diplomats, who are more interested in looking for allies than Asian solidarity. They often complain of Chinese harassment of Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters and recently put in an order for six submarines.

For Washington, staking out a position on the South China Sea dispute is more of a gamble.

It allows the Pentagon to reassert U.S. influence in a distant but vital area. However, it does so with no clearly defined goal and is up against a resolute and patient Beijing.

“China won’t back down from its position, which it has held for a long time,” said Ian Storey, a fellow at the Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“It’s harder for the U.S. though, because now they have said they want to facilitate these talks, what happens next?… It’s all tied up with the rise of China’s navy and growing disquiet within the Pentagon about the growth of that navy.”

Even if a compromise solution can be reached sometime soon, it is unlikely to be a permanent one.

“Both governments are not willing to let this kind of high tension last a long time, so maybe several weeks later we can expect that they will take some action to control the developing of this kind of dispute,” Shi said, adding a grim prediction.

“The disputes will be still there and will be temporarily under control, and then temporarily break out, and this will make Sino-U.S. relations more complicated in the future.”

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