South China Sea dispute: China says it will work with neighbors

In the past month, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan have all had brushes with China as they all assert territorial claims in the oil-rich South China Sea.

Andy Wong/AP
US flag and China's flag flutter in winds at a hotel in Beijing Wednesday. Beijing told US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today it was willing to work with its neighbors to peacefully resolve the dispute with their smaller neighbors over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

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Tensions in the oil-rich South China Sea have come to a boil in the past month, with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China all vying for overlapping territorial claims.

Regional power China steadfastly maintains its sovereignty over a number of small islands in the region, even islands that are much closer to the smaller claimants. But in a potential sign of movement on the issue, Voice of America reports, Beijing told US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today it was willing to work with its neighbors to peacefully resolve the dispute, though showed no sign on budging on its claims.

Secretary Clinton met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi today in Beijing where she noted the need for a “code of conduct” in the region in order to resolve the South China Sea dispute in a timely and diplomatic manner. China has dodged signing such a code in the past.

"Our interest is in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce. And as a friend to the countries involved, we do believe it is in everyone's interest that China and ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] engage in a diplomatic process toward the shared goal of a code of conduct,” Clinton said.

Nearly half of the world’s commercial shipping uses the South China Sea, and the US depends on it to pass military vessels. The waters are also rich in oil, natural gas, and seafood. “Despite mutual suspicion of each side’s weight on the world stage and competing political systems, the [US and China] usually cooperate because they need each other as trade partners,” reports The Christian Science Monitor.

According to The New York Times, China has resisted holding talks with ASEAN, and since Clinton’s last visit to China in May, “the Chinese have acted more boldly in maritime disputes.”

China contends it will resolve each conflicting claim through bilateral talks, and “eventually” agree to talks with ASEAN member countries through a code of conduct, according to Mr. Yang. Yang says there is ample historic evidence to prove China’s right to the islands, and that disputes will be resolved through "direct negotiation and friendly consultation.” According to Bloomberg:

"China has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters. There is plenty of historical and jurisprudence evidence of that," he said.

Yang also rejected that there was any threat to international maritime commerce from the rising tensions over the disputes, something Washington has cited for the reason that peaceful settlements of the claims are a U.S. national security interest.

"The freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea is assured," he said. "There is no issue currently in this area nor will there ever be issues in that area in the future."

Though Clinton was praised by President Hu for the import she has placed on US-Chinese ties, displayed by her visit to the country and a student visa program, her welcome was not entirely warm. Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over the presidency this fall, canceled a planned meeting with Clinton. Additionally, she was lambasted by Chinese state media, which raised suspicions over US interest in the conflict and accused the US of containment policies. The Financial Times reports:

“Sowing discord among China’s neighbours will not benefit the United States,” said the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist party’s mouthpiece, in a front-page editorial of its overseas edition. “If American foreign policy damages China’s core interests, that can only lead to China hitting back strongly.”

The blast followed a wave of similarly critical coverage in other state media, including Xinhua, the official news agency, calling the US a “sneaky troublemaker”.

According to another New York Times report, Clinton did not have high expectations of resolving major conflicts like the South China Sea or Syria going into her visit, and Chinese leadership was “in no mood to be constructive” on major foreign issues with the US, according to a senior diplomat in Beijing who spoke anonymously.

Clinton came to China from Indonesia where she pushed for ASEAN countries to “present a unified front in dealing with Beijing in attempts to ease rising tensions in the South China Sea,” according to the Associated Press. The binding code Clinton is calling for could help create a process to resolve maritime disputes without intimidation or coercion. The hope is to make progress toward this shared code by a November summit of East Asian leaders, where President Obama may be present.

What exactly would the code do? The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this summer:

The idea is that it would spell out what ships should do to avoid a clash but it wouldn't actually spell out how to resolve competing claims, according to regional news media.

So what’s the big deal behind this year’s deal – besides calming nervous people onshore and making their leaders look like saintly peacemakers?

The deal doesn't really work unless China, the one that all the others are worried about, agrees to it. But China is leaning against adding its signature. It wants to keep an upper hand in the dispute, especially with the recent US push to focus on Asia.

A recent editorial in Gulf News calls on ASEAN nations to exercise their sovereignty amid what it sees as a US-China squabble over the “economic hot spot” of the Southeast Asian region.

The US has been battling economic drought and seeks to gain a foothold in an area which is prosperous and seen as one of the fastest growing in the world. China merely wants to bulldoze its way through in a quest towards opening up more and more trading outposts all across the world. This spot, however, is a little closer to home and presents an ideal opportunity to increase its growing influence, thanks to the presence of huge gas reserves in the South China Sea.

In the light of this scenario US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s plea for Asean unity against China in dealing with territorial disputes — namely the South China Sea issue — comes across as duplicitous….

This is why the situation presents Asean countries with an opportunity to realise their true potential and function with an independent, but cautious, mindset without being influenced by either Beijing, or Washington. They must exercise their sovereignty and make the right choice without the pressure of undue influence. They should not become accomplices to an arms race.

While Clinton advocates the dispute to be resolved through collaboration, by as early as November, China is seeking individual agreements with countries with a view towards giving it more control. A disagreement between the two superpowers is on the cards, but it can be avoided if the individual nations choose to act with responsibility coupled with tact.

Clinton is halfway through her 11-day tour of the Asia-Pacific, and after she leaves China she will go on to visit East Timor and Brunei.

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