Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Why US Made Hanoi Move

The US was under pressure from ASEAN countries to step up over the South China Sea. But conflict with China isn’t inevitable.

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.

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Upping the ante, on August 12, Major Gen. Luo Yuan published a commentary in the Liberation Army Daily, a leading PLA publication, calling on Beijing to retaliate. ‘If someone doesn't hurt me, I won't hurt him; but if someone hurts me, I must hurt him.’  Rear Admiral Yang Yi, who works at China’s National Defense University, subsequently wrote another Liberation Army Daily commentary warning that the planned US-ROK exercises could undermine Beijing’s interest in assisting Washington with Pyongyang. ‘On the one hand, it wants China to play a role in regional security issues,’ Yang wrote. ‘On the other hand, it is engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement of China and constantly challenging China's core interests.’ 

But not every country with an interest in the South China Sea is unhappy with the US intervention.

Vietnamis the only other country to claim all the small islands, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan assert sovereignty over some of the islands in the South China Sea, which encompasses about 3.5 million square kilometres of water near the coastlines of all these countries and a few others. The Spratly and Paracel chains are the most prominent of the islands, whose small size belies the potential value of the important natural resources thought to lie underneath their surrounding waters—above all oil and natural gas. The islands are also surrounded by valuable fishing grounds and straddle vital shipping lanes. According to ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, more than 85 percent of the energy resources shipped to China, Japan and South Korea pass through the South China Sea. 

In the 1990s, China declared the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters, but on November 4, 2002, in recognition of the common interest of all parties in keeping East Asian shipping lanes secure, China and the ten members of ASEAN signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The signatory countries pledged to resolve their sovereignty disputes peacefully through direct negotiations.

Yet in March this year this all changed again. China declared the South China Sea a ‘core national interest,’ which in diplomatic language normally means an issue a state is willing to use military force to defend (previously Chinese leaders had only applied that term to Tibet and Taiwan). 

So, does China have the military prowess to back such a claim up with force if necessary? The Chinese Navy has certainly been developing, but likely still couldn’t do so if the US Navy decided to intervene. That said, the PLA Navy has built an enormous base on its southern Hainan Island, which places the fleet closer to the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Chinese military has also been developing a new anti-ship ballistic missile, the Dong Feng 21D, that the PLA wants to equip with a manoeuvrable warhead that could hit an aircraft carrier or other moving target at a distance of 1500 kilometres. China’s military appears to believe that just having such a capacity will prompt the US Navy to stay clear of the South China Sea, Taiwan, or other disputed regions around China’s maritime periphery.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

ASEAN countries, meanwhile, simply can’t hope to balance China’s militarily on their own, especially as they’ve shown little interest in pooling their limited resources and developing a collective military force.

Unlike South Korea, Japan or Australia, the South-east Asian states lack bilateral defence treaties with the United States, and their position is complicated further by extensive and mutually beneficial economic ties with Beijing that they don’t want to jeopardize by directly confronting China over its maritime claims.

But the effort spent on avoiding overt confrontation with Beijing shouldn’t be mistaken for lack of action—some ASEAN officials have been privately pressing Washington to intervene on the South China Sea issue to discourage Chinese adventurism.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has been as keen as any country in the region to work with its old foe, the United States, to balance the overwhelming Chinese colossus. And there’s a history of tensions between the two. The Vietnamese Navy battled the Chinese in the mid-1970s and late 1980s over the Paracel and Spratly island chains. More recently, Chinese authorities have declared unilateral fishing bans in the South China Sea and have seized Vietnamese fishing boats in the area, keeping their catches and equipment and releasing them only after they pay fines to the Chinese authorities. They’ve also been warning Western energy firms not to negotiate offshore drilling agreements with the Vietnamese government or their business interests in China would suffer. 

Against this kind of backdrop, it’s likely no coincidence that Clinton made her remarks while in Hanoi. The US and Vietnamese navies subsequently conducted joint exercises that saw the first visit of a US aircraft carrier to a Vietnamese port since the Vietnam War ended 35 years ago, with the USS George Washington also hosting a Vietnamese military delegation while sailing in the disputed South China Sea off the Vietnamese port of Danang.

Again, perhaps unsurprisingly, the growing security ties between Vietnam and Washington provoked an angry response with one Chinese commentator warning that the United States was trying to construct an ‘Asian NATO’ to contain China.

Writing in the People’s Daily, Li Hongmei accused the Obama administration of ‘experimenting (with) a new, more insidious but very risky diplomatic strategy in the region, where it has for long played hegemonic power, to contain an emerging great power…drifting from confrontation to confrontation with a rising China.’ Although acknowledging that a ‘physically existent NATO may be unlikely to come into being…psychologically, the US is coaxing and coercing China's neighbours to join in its galaxy.’

But it’s not all about regional pressure to intervene—US officials have their own reasons for contesting Beijing’s maritime claims.

According to one calculation, one-third of all the world’s commercial shipping traverses waters that Chinese policymakers now claim belong to them. Soon after taking office, the Obama administration made clear its determination to contest Chinese sovereignty claims in international waters after Chinese ships and aircraft launched a concerted campaign of harassment against US maritime surveillance ships that were in the South China Sea. The most notorious episode occurred in March 2009, when Chinese sailors tried to seize the sonar buoy that the USNS Impeccable was using to survey China’s new naval base on Hainan and Chinese submarines in the area.

So will the combination of regional tensions and self-interest precipitate a premeditated Sino-American military clash?

At the moment at least it seems extremely unlikely given the mutual economic interests of both countries and the obvious incentive Beijing has to bide its time while China, which recently became the second largest economy in the world after the United States, continues its peaceful rise to global power.

But the possibility of a military conflict through miscalculation can’t be ruled out. With this in mind, Washington would do well to consider whether it’s really worth putting an aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea. The motivation is noble—assisting ally South Korea by highlighting military support for Seoul. But such a move also risks undermining efforts to get Beijing’s help dealing with Pyongyang. That said, the issue of the military exercises should be treated separately from Clinton’s statement, which had the useful effect of underscoring Washington’s interest in denying Chinese claims to sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.

Last year, the show of US determination to continue maritime surveillance and freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea in the face of some Chinese opposition resulted in an end to Chinese harassment there. If both sides are sensible, there’s no reason why this latest disagreement need get out of hand.