Hillary Clinton and Asia's watery flashpoint

China appears to have backed down a bit and agreed to work multilaterally on resolving the various claims to the South China Sea. A strong US stance probably helped.

The task of keeping the peace in Asia has largely fallen to the United States – for decades. Now the reluctant superpower can claim some success again in helping quell – for now – another potential military clash. This time it is in the South China Sea, the region’s central waterway and a flash point for war.

Most of the nations that claim the small islands in this mineral-rich sea agreed this week on the first guidelines for settling disputes. The effort took more than eight years of negotiations, with much more that needs to be done.

But China, which had long insisted on dealing individually with each territorial rival, may finally be relenting to a multilateral approach.

Hillary Rodham Clinton can be thanked for that.

A year ago, America’s chief diplomat stood up to the bullying tactics of the Chinese Navy, warning against the “use or threat of force by any claimant.” She asserted a US “national interest” in the strategic South China Sea and encouraged a multilateral solution. Her words brought a sharp rebuke from Chinese officials, who likewise claimed a “core interest” in the sea.

On Saturday, she meets with officials from China and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bali. With Vietnam and the Philippines now seeking closer military ties with the US – after recently suffering harassment by Chinese ships near their islands – China may have realized that it can’t badger its neighbors into submission.

China’s claims, which extend hundreds of miles from its shores, are clearly outside the bounds of the Law of the Sea Treaty. It won’t even be precise in its claims, perhaps because its military wants to end the US Navy’s dominance in the region. China also seems to be planning for its submarines to use the sea as a launching pad for intercontinental missiles – a type of military insurance if its mainland is attacked.

Last month, Cui Tiankai, China’s vice foreign minister, warned the US that “individual countries [in Southeast Asia] are playing with fire,” and then added that he hoped the fire “doesn’t reach the United States.”

Heated rhetoric and minor incidents in the South China Sea (mainly around the Spratly and Paracel Islands) need a cooling off period.

Perhaps this latest ASEAN-China agreement is a sign that Beijing now knows that its belligerent actions in these island disputes have only served to unite ASEAN and forced many of its neighbors – notably Vietnam – closer to the US.

America’s presence in Asia has long been a benign one, and welcomed as long as Asian nations continue to bicker or even threaten each other. China should welcome that, not fight it.

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