Last week the Globe magazine published a widely reproduced article signed by Ju Wen attacking the United States for suggesting ‘that it will stick its nose into the South China Sea, claiming that territorial disputes in the region have a bearing on US national interests.’
The commentary was alluding to comments by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at last month’s meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi, in which she said that Washington was willing to facilitate multilateral discussions on the disputed territories of the South China Sea. She also said it opposed any use of coercion or threats of force to enforce conflicting claims.
The statement was a bold move designed to redirect Beijing away from the more aggressive stance it had adopted over the dispute in recent months. But it also marked a shift for a US that has traditionally sought to avoid taking a stance on East Asian sovereignty disputes.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
What prompted such a change? Clinton justified her statement of concern by stating that ‘The United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia' maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, China was furious over Clinton’s comments, not least because previously it had succeeded in keeping the sovereignty issue off the ARF agenda and other multinational meetings. As the region’s most powerful country, the Chinese have sought to enforce their preferences on China’s weaker neighbours, ideally by dividing them and dealing with them bilaterally. Chinese officials denounced Clinton’s efforts to ‘internationalize’ the issue, with both the Chinese foreign and defence ministries criticizing her for intervening in the South China Sea dispute.
Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng, for example, said Beijing had ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the Sea but would seek to resolve the issue with the other claimants and wouldn’t object to the movement of foreign vessels through the area provided they respected international law; Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi castigated Clinton for allegedly trying to inflame tensions over the issue.
Rubbing salt into the wound, in many Chinese eyes at least, is Washington’s plans to conduct the next round of US-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which lies between China and the Korean peninsula. Although Chinese officials acknowledge that most of the Yellow Sea consists of international waters, they insist that the Sea’s proximity to its main coastal cities, including Beijing, and its importance as a route for maritime commerce, makes the Yellow Sea a sensitive security zone.