South China Sea deal eases US-China tension

China acquiesced to a draft agreement on the South China Sea dispute ahead of Secretary of State Clinton's arrival at an ASEAN summit last night – perhaps to block US 'meddling' in talks.

Saul Loeb/AP
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, walks to a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Ministerial Meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, Friday, July 22.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today praised China and the regional bloc ASEAN for reaching a draft agreement this week to ease tensions in the disputed South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over the entire sea, but the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia also claim parts of it as their own. A third of the world's shipping passes through this body of water, which is also rich in oil and natural gas, the Associated Press reports.

China, which has been accused of trying to intimidate the Philippines and Vietnam into stopping their oil exploration in the sea, has long resisted signing any agreement that would require that disputes be resolved peacefully until now. China's acquiescence to the draft agreement – which ends more than a decade of deadlock and brings the countries closer to a final, legally binding code of conduct – was likely spurred by a desire to get the issue off the table before Clinton's arrival Thursday night at the ASEAN summit in Bali, Reuters reports.

At last year's meeting, Secretary Clinton announced that the US considered the South China Sea dispute a national security issue because of its obligation to guarantee freedom of navigation, according to AP. The US has since held joint naval drills in the area with both the Philippines and Vietnam, CNN reports.

But China says the disputes are bilateral ones and perceives US involvement in the dispute as meddling and provocative. An editorial in China Daily today says that the dispute has been "heating up" since least year's ASEAN summit.

Obviously, the legally binding code of conduct is targeted against China. The United States, the world's only superpower, has long been actively interfering in the South China Sea territorial dispute. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced publicly at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting last year that the South China Sea dispute was related to US national interests. The dispute has been heating up since then. …

China disapproves of referring bilateral disputes to multilateral forums and is strongly opposed to the intervention of an outside power in the South China Sea dispute. This does not mean that China has done something wrong or feels guilty. China just does not want to complicate the issue.

The editorial also questioned the motivations for pushing a binding agreement on conduct in the South China Sea, accusing the other signatories to the agreement of moving freely while "binding China" and of bringing in the US and Japan to put pressure on China.

An editorial from Chinese wire agency Xinhua also lobs accusations against China's neighbors.

… Some other parties in the disputes have sometimes behaved in a way that runs directly counter to the [Declaration of Conduct]. Such moves as carrying out military drills in the contested waters and throwing around imprudent rhetoric can be anything but helpful.

In a more flagrant breach of the written promise to "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes," these trouble-making claimants have been assuming the role of a victim on the world stage, attempting to draw non-parties into the already intricate disputes and fish more illegitimate benefits from troubled waters.

China is not the only country unhappy with the agreement. The Philippines criticized it as "lacking teeth" and officials from all the countries represented said a binding agreement remains far off, Agence France-Presse reports.

And the temporarily goodwill between the US and China may be short lived. Clinton is expected to make a speech at another regional conference Saturday in which she is expected to emphasize America's strategic interest in the sea.

Despite this week's agreement, the other countries in the dispute do not trust China and will want the US to remain a key player, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial.

China's neighbors are well aware of her history and culture, and that is why they mistrust her and want the US to continue to be the guarantor of peace in the region, as it has been for the last 60 years. They certainly hope that Beijing will return to its smile diplomacy of a few years ago and pledge to abide by a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea. But whatever they may say in public this weekend, they're not holding their breath. The message Mrs. Clinton will get in her private meetings is that Southeast Asians want Washington to strengthen diplomatic and military ties in East Asia.

In the past year, China has been accused of trying to intimidate the Philippines and Vietnam into stopping their oil exploration there. It has long resisted signing any sort of agreement that would require that disputes be resolved peacefully and without threats – until now.

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