China Is Checkmated at ASEAN
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The U.S. checkmated China at the 17th Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi on July 23 by emphasizing multilateralism and offering to act as mediator in regional disputes.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. supported collaborative diplomatic efforts by all for the resolution of territorial disputes “without coercion,” further stating the U.S. opposes “the use of threat of force by any claimant.” She also emphasized the importance of multilateralism, challenging China’s insistence on bilateral approaches to South China Sea disputes.
China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said the comments were an “attack” on China. Regional nations should “exercise restraint” and not “make it an international issue or multilateral issue,” he said.
China recently declared the South China Sea a “core interest” on par with Tibet and Taiwan, which has unsettled regional neighbors. Clinton’s response to the “core interest” was that the South China Sea was “pivotal” to regional security and that freedom of navigation is a U.S. national interest.
“Until recently, the U.S. tended to stay on the sidelines of the dispute” by emphasizing freedom of navigation, the non-use of force and peaceful resolution of disputes, said Ian Storey, an ASEAN specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The U.S. does not take positions on competing claims, but “due to its growing concerns [over Chinese behavior], the U.S. has signaled a more proactive policy.”
China was also surprised by Clinton’s offer to facilitate talks on implementing confidence-building measures agreed upon in the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DoC) in the South China Sea, Storey said. Since it was signed in 2002, neither ASEAN nor China has made any progress on DoC.
In June, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. supported the “concrete implementation” of the DoC.
“What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one?” Yang said. “It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult. International practices show that the best way to resolve such disputes is for countries concerned to have direct bilateral negotiations.” Observers view China’s bilateral emphasis as a strategy to “divide and conquer” ASEAN and take control of the South China Sea.
There are concerns China is formulating a “Chinese Monroe Doctrine,” said Paul Giarra, president of Global Strategies and Transformation, a Washington-based consulting firm.
China’s “bellicosity and diplomatic outrage appear to be a sign of weakness rather than strength,” said Carlyle Thayer, a South China Sea specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy. This year’s ARF “witnessed a turning of the tide” with the U.S. re-engaging Southeast Asia on a multilateral basis, he said.
The U.S. has “directly confronted China and its bullying,” Thayer said. “China’s claim that the U.S. orchestrated regional states to attack China verbally is disingenuous. It has been using diplomatic muscle to divide ASEAN and undermine the network of U.S. alliances and security ties.” Tensions over competing sovereignty claims in the Paracel and Spratly Islands have been rising since 2007, when China began turning up the heat in the South China Sea and intimidating ASEAN members.
China has increased naval exercises in the South China Sea, threatened multinational oil companies operating in Vietnamese waters, detained Vietnamese fishermen and constructed a new submarine base on Hainan Island.
In 2009 and 2010, China declared a unilateral moratorium from May to August on fishing in the South China Sea. The dates coincided with the Vietnamese fishing season. Hanoi was outraged when Chinese fishery administration vessels boarded and seized the catches of Vietnamese fishing boats in 2009. As recently as June, China seized three Vietnamese fishing boats and arrested the crew near the Paracel Islands.
The U.S. has been relatively lax in addressing ASEAN security concerns in recent years, but new efforts have placed it on the front burner.
The first signs of change came in July 2009, when the U.S. signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation; then in November, President Barack Obama attended the first ASEAN-U.S. leadership summit in Singapore. He will host the second meeting in the U.S. next year.
“Clinton has not only attended two ARFs in a row,” but offered U.S. assistance in settling diplomatically security issues in the South China Sea, Thayer said.
Clinton is expected to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Hanoi in October, and Obama will most likely attend the EAS in Jakarta in 2011, he said.
Clinton’s comments at ARF and Vietnam’s hosting the event appear conspiratorial to Beijing, particularly as they are uniting ASEAN in opposing China.
“Vietnam has played its role as ASEAN chair to perfection, but the role is not over,” Thayer said. The culmination, with added difficulties, will come at the inaugural meeting in Hanoi of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus Eight (ADMM + 8) in October, Thayer said. This year, the ADMM was expanded to include Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the U.S.
China is expected to fire back at the U.S. at ADMM+8 in an effort to regain the high ground, including an attempt to block U.S. membership in the EAS.