U.S. Signals to China It Won’t Keep Out of South Sea

China considers the entire South China Sea as its own
U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said resolving territorial disputes off China’s southern coast is “a leading diplomatic priority,” signaling her intention to intercede in a region claimed in full by the Chinese government.

Ending disagreements in the South China Sea “is pivotal to regional stability” and ensuring “unimpeded commerce,” Clinton told the 27-member Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi today, according to a State Department transcript.

“If you look at a map of this region, there are many countries that are increasing their trade, their commercial maritime traffic,” Clinton told reporters after her meetings, which included a bilateral discussion with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi “There is a concern that we all abide by the international rules.”

The Chinese government considers the entire South China Sea as its own, dismissing rival claims to islands such as the Spratlys, and is building a blue-water fleet to project power beyond its own borders. China told Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP Plc to halt exploration in offshore areas that Vietnam considers part of its territory, according to U.S. government agencies.

“China’s assertiveness has caused anxieties in the region,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, professor of politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra. Countries around Asia “are quite happy the U.S. is doing the heavy lifting.”

In their separate meeting, Yang said China was willing to discuss all of the issues raised by Clinton, including the South China Sea, a U.S. administration official traveling with Clinton said on condition of anonymity. China prefers such issues to be discussed bilaterally, the official said.

‘Core Interest’ Status

Raising the South China Sea to the level of a “core interest” would put it on the same standing as Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway province to be reunited by force, if necessary. China cut military links with the U.S. in January in protest at arms sales to Taiwan.

China has also protested military exercises by the U.S. off the coast of South Korea that Gates said are aimed at deterring further acts of aggression by North Korea after the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

In a show of the U.S.’ strategic commitment to the region, Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, together with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior defense officials met in Seoul on June 21 on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War.

U.S. Naval Force

The 97,000-ton USS George Washington and three destroyers arrived in the country the same day, ahead of military exercises due next week that will involve F-22 stealth fighter-bombers and hundreds of other aircraft, ships and thousands of U.S. and Korean personnel.

The U.S. drills mask a hidden aim to “pressurize and contain other big powers by force of arms in the region,” the state-run Korea Central News Agency said July 21. North Korea denies any involvement in the sinking and today accused the U.S. of “gunboat diplomacy” in sending the George Washington to the region.

“There will be a physical response against the steps imposed by the United States militarily,” Ri Tong Il, an official with North Korea’s delegation to the Asean Regional Forum, told reporters in Hanoi today.

China, North Korea’s main ally and source of economic support, is “firmly opposed” to any threatening foreign military activities in waters off its shores, the foreign ministry said in a statement posted on its website. It has so far refused to join international condemnation of North Korea for the ship sinking.

Claims Disputed

Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said there was “very, very open, sometimes heated discussion” in the forum on issues including the Korean peninsula and South China Sea.

The Chinese government formally disputed the claims of Vietnam and Malaysia to part of the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands when it submitted a map to the United Nations last year asserting ownership over most of the sea. Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also lay claim to all or part of the island chain, which may contain oil and gas reserves.

There is a growing chorus among Southeast Asian countries to begin a more substantive process for settling disputes, said the U.S. official.

China has beefed up its military over the past decade, enhancing the capability to deter U.S. ships and enforce territorial claims off its shores. Last year, Chinese fishing boats harassed two U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea, where American forces have patrolled since World War II.

Taiwan, Tibet

Chinese officials told U.S. counterparts in March they consider the sea a “core interest” on par with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, Kyodo News reported on July 3, citing unidentified officials.

“The development of China’s national defense capabilities is not aimed at challenging, threatening or invading any other country but at, first and foremost, maintaining its own security,” the PLA’s Ma said in Singapore.

Clinton yesterday discussed military cooperation with Vietnam and Gates restored ties with special forces in Indonesia. The two countries border the South China Sea.

“The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion,” Clinton said. “We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.”

Asean foreign ministers are negotiating an agreement with China on a code of conduct in the sea to build on a 2002 accordthat called for disputes to be resolved peacefully. Ministershope the deal can be concluded by year’s end, Asean’s Surin said yesterday.

Open shipping lanes in the sea are “really the lifeline of our commerce, of our transport for all of us,” Surin told reporters in Hanoi. China, Japan and South Korea “recognize that 85 to 90 percent of their energy source comes either from or through Southeast Asia,” he said.

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