US warships are currently staging their third set of exercises in less than a month off the coast of China, in a show of force that has prompted sharp criticism from Beijing and fears of prolonged maritime tensions in the region.
The US joint maneuvers with the South Korean and Vietnamese navies come hard on the heels of the three largest long-range training exercises that the Chinese Navy has ever held, and a series of clashes between Chinese ships and foreign fishing boats in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The deployments illustrate a potentially dangerous clash of interests as each side seeks to assert its presence: China views the region as a vital shipping conduit for its energy imports and a key naval route to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, while America insists – as a global naval player – on its need for unimpeded passage and on its role as a Pacific power.
Wrestling match over the South China Sea
“The US-China wrestling match over the South China Sea issue has raised the stakes in deciding who the real future ruler of the planet will be,” proclaimed the daily Global Times last week. The paper is published by the ruling Communist party.
Last March, Beijing told visiting US officials that the South China Sea was a “core national interest,” giving the area the same status as Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang as a place China is prepared to fight over. As Beijing moves steadily closer to its goal of a powerful “blue water” navy, this implied threat carries added weight.
“That really rattled the US and Southeast Asian nations,” says Renato de Castro, who teaches international relations at De La Salle university in Manila.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded last month, at an Asian security conference, by declaring a US “national interest in freedom of navigation … and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”
That statement matched other recent US moves to remind China of Washington’s intention to remain a Pacific power.
US muscle flexing, or just keeping China in line?
Countering some regional allies’ impression that the United States had been ignoring them, Mrs. Clinton made Asia her first destination as Secretary of State and Washington last year signed a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Chinese analysts see Washington’s recent moves as a reflection of its concerns about US standing. “This is not a return to the region, but a bid to strengthen US leadership and its economic, military, and political presence in East Asia,” says Liu Xuecheng, an adviser to the Chinese leadership at the China Institute of International Studies.
The current US naval exercises, he adds, “are sending a message to East Asia, that the US is dominant and that nobody can challenge them.”
Others see stepped-up American involvement as pushback against increasingly assertive Chinese behavior.
China's recent assertive behavior
Aside from its recent long-range maritime maneuvers, China has converted a number of warships into fisheries protection vessels that have clashed repeatedly with Vietnamese fishing boats in disputed waters around the Paracel islands. One such vessel forcibly prevented the Indonesian Navy from seizing a Chinese fishing boat inside Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) last June.
Vietnam has protested that Chinese craft have carried out seismic exploration of the seabed beneath contested waters; Chinese patrol boats have enforced unilateral fishing bans on conservation grounds in disputed territories, and Beijing has warned US oil companies not to help Vietnam search for oil and gas near the Paracels.
Chinese ships also clashed three times last year with US military vessels inside China’s EEZ. Washington insisted that their right to innocent passage is guaranteed by the UN Law of the Sea (although the US has not signed that treaty.) China accused them of spying.
Such incidents are already fraught with risk; Washington and Beijing have no crisis-management system in place since China suspended military-to-military ties earlier this year when the US sold weapons to Taiwan.
The problem would be much more grave if China ever attempted to enforce its territorial claims to archipelagos of islets and reefs and their surrounding waters, which cover 80 percent of the South China Sea.
Though Beijing has repeatedly insisted that it is ready to set territorial claims aside in favor of joint exploration for oil and gas with other claimant countries, its rising naval prowess has sparked “a growing wariness of Chinese intentions,” says Professor de Castro.
Seeking strength in numbers, ASEAN is demanding that China negotiate territorial issues with the 10 nation group as a whole, not individually with the four claimant members, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.
Washington has hitched its policy to ASEAN’s concerns about China, profiting from “a renewed confidence in the United States” born of US accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a political analyst in Bangkok who once worked for the regional grouping.
“Washington has changed the paradigm of engagement with East Asia,” says Mr. Chongkittavorn. “By promoting ASEAN, it promotes itself, and ASEAN will be the horse that America rides.”
Beijing has reacted noisily to US moves. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said China “resolutely opposes” the Yellow Sea maneuvers, and the suggestion that the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier, might participate prompted special ire.
The PLA Daily, published by China’s armed forces, carried an article last week warning that “if others don’t offend us we will not offend them, but if they do offend us we will definitely offend them. This is no joke for the Chinese people or the Chinese Army.”
Though the exercises are well within international law, says Niu Xinchun, an analyst at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a Beijing think tank, “they make us feel insecure. If we were as strong as the US, I don’t think we would be afraid of them.”
Meanwhile there are doubts whether ASEAN is cohesive enough to play the role Washington appears to have assigned it. Beijing refuses to negotiate territorial questions with the grouping since it is not a sovereign body, and not all members are equally prepared to irritate China; only four of them have territorial disputes with their giant neighbor.
“ASEAN would like to deal with China as a group, but that will be very difficult to do,” warns Chongkittavorn. “And ASEAN has to be very careful how it manages a conflict with China. This is not Darfur or Iran; this is close to the Chinese home and it is of vital national interest to them.”