Sun, May 18, 2014 - Page 5 News List

VIETNAM PROTESTS: Obama’s Asia pivot tested by China’s maritime claims

Reuters, WASHINGTON and MANILA

US President Barack Obama sought to reassure allies in Asia last month that the US would support them in the face of a more assertive China.

However, after one of Beijing’s boldest moves in years to lay claim to contested waters off Vietnam, some Asia countries are asking a simple question: Where is Washington?

Days after Obama left the region, China deployed an oil drilling rig 240km off the coast of Vietnam, into a part of the South China Sea claimed by itself and Hanoi.

That sparked deadly anti-China riots in central Vietnam and raised questions over whether Obama’s long-promised strategic “pivot” of military assets to Asia is more than talk.

“We have been pushing the US to change its policy and take sides in the regional dispute,” a senior Philippine defense official said. “I wanted to see the US match with stronger action what President Obama has said during his recent visit in the Philippines.”

China claims a stretch of water off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia, setting it in direct conflict with claims of US allies Vietnam and the Philippines. Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also lay claim to parts of the South China Sea.

At stake is control over what are believed to be significant reserves of oil and gas.

Estimates for proven and undiscovered oil reserves in the entire sea range from 28 billion to as high as 213 billion barrels of oil, the US Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report.

The US has responded with sharpened rhetoric toward China, but has taken no tangible action, a stark reflection of the limited options available to an administration already stretched by the crisis in Ukraine and faced with a quandary over how to deter China without damaging broader ties with the world’s second-biggest economy.

The US has refused to take sides in maritime disputes and urged negotiations.

Washington itself has ruled out mediating between Beijing and Hanoi.

Some of the US’ friends in the region have little patience with a measured approach, especially after Obama, during his four-country Asian tour, raised expectations for an increased effort to keep China from overstepping in maritime disputes with its neighbors.

An Asian diplomat in Washington said it was essential the US took a firmer line with Beijing while also using its influence to calm the mood in Vietnam, where anti-China rioting subsided on Friday.

He said the concern among Southeast Asian countries was that China was seeking incremental gains in provoking a series of crises with its neighbors, a tactic that could eventually change the regional landscape unless it was met with a resolute response.

The US does not have a treaty obligation to defend Vietnam as it does the Philippines, and there was no sign Washington was considering tougher actions such as sending more navy ships to the area or imposing sanctions on Beijing.

Due to the intertwined nature of the US and Chinese economies, there is little appetite in Washington for the kind of punitive measures that have been used against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Some China watchers believe a firmer US stand is needed.

“The United States should be prepared to offer support to Vietnam through an increased naval presence,” wrote Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi of the think tank Council on Foreign Relations.

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