It is time to pick sides in the South China Sea

By Lin Cheng-yi 林正義  / 

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 - Page 8

As part of US President Barack Obama’s efforts to promote a US “return to Asia,” Washington pushed the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) at the recent APEC summit and proposed the creation of a Southeast Asia Maritime Partnership at the East Asia Summit (EAS), policies that are intended to constrain China both economically and strategically.

A public opinion poll conducted in nine Asian countries and released by Gallup Inc on Nov. 18 showed that 44 percent of respondents supported US leadership in Asia, while 30 percent support Chinese leadership in the region. In Australia, the Philippines and South Korea, the support for US leadership was 29 percentage points higher than support for Beijing.

China has taken note of the shift in the strategic focus of the Obama administration as the US winds down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and believes the US’ primary goal is to constrain Beijing. Obama recently announced that the US would deploy 2,500 troops at a military base in Darwin, Australia, starting next year. Add to that the continued activities of US warships and fighter jets in East Asia.

Although the US has said it wants a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive Sino-US relationship for the 21st century,” signs of disagreements between the two countries over the South China Sea are becoming increasingly obvious.

In July last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly challenged China’s claims to sovereignty over the whole South China Sea. In June, after procrastinating for several years, China finally reached an agreement with ASEAN on guidelines for the implementation of a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed in 2002, a sign of US influence in the region.

Beijing has been enforcing a unilateral ban on fishing in the region to protect fishery resources, cutting the cables of a Vietnam Oil and Gas Corp (PetroVietnam) vessel, warning Western oil companies not to cooperate with the Philippines or Vietnam in oil and gas exploration projects and expelling US warships and fighters conducting military operations in China’s “exclusive economic zone.” As a result, China’s number of friends in the South China Sea region is dwindling.

Through the newly proposed Southeast Asia Maritime Partnership, the US will provide training and equipment to maritime police and civil units in Southeast Asian countries to enhance their ability to combat transnational threats.

The US is also prepared to share maritime surveillance and information and hold regional conferences to reinforce standard operating procedures, as well as create more space for discussions on the Law of the Sea. Moreover, Washington plans to carry out multinational drills in the South China Sea to help other nations in the region build and expand their maritime capabilities.

Although Beijing hopes to cooperate with Taipei to study the legal significance of China’s “U-shaped Line” in the South China Sea, and jointly explore for oil and patrol the region to safeguard their rights, China has continued to block the participation of the Taiwanese government in official international discussions over the South China Sea issue.

China’s aggressiveness has ruined the image of a peaceful rise that it spent so many years cultivating.

The juxtaposition of Chinese and US interests in the South China Sea means that the risk attached to any Taiwanese cooperation with China is growing.

Lin Cheng-yi is a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of European and American Studies.

Translated by Eddy Chang