The ever-exciting South China Sea took on a new twist this weekend with the U.S. and China trading strongly worded statements.
The statement began by reaffirming that the U.S. has a “national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea,” something Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at the ASEAN Regional Forum two years ago. It then expressed concern at what it claimed was “an uptick in confrontational rhetoric, disagreements over resource exploitation, coercive economic actions, and the incidents around the Scarborough Reef, including the use of barriers to deny access.” Controversially, the next sentence singled out China, “in particular,” and even more specifically Beijing’s recent establishment of the “Sansha City” administrative body and corresponding military garrison.
China responded with a harshly worded statement by a spokesperson in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The MFA statement said that Washington’s “so-called press statement” showed a “total disregard of facts, confused right and wrong,” and was not conducive to regional peace. It also reaffirmed that Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters” and argued that creating Sansha City was well within its sovereign rights.
The MFA statement did say China was willing to discuss a binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea with ASEAN, but only when certain member-states stopped violating the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The statement went on to rhetorically ask why the U.S. turned a “blind eye” to other claimants’ actions in the disputed waters, such as-without naming names- using naval boats to intimate Chinese fishermen and passing domestic legislation that claimed ownership over Chinese islands and reefs.
Not content to leave it at that, on Saturday Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Kunsheng summoned U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in the country, Robert Wang, to further chastise the statement. This was followed by more criticism from Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, who was part of the Chinese delegation that attended the ASEAN summit last month, during an interview with Xinhua News on Sunday. During the interview Fu also stated that “The South China Sea is not an issue between ASEAN and China, but rather between China and relevant ASEAN countries.”
The U.S. statement signaled a departure from the United States’ recent policy of publically remaining rather aloof from the escalating tensions in the South China Sea. This stand-offish policy was motivated by the lack of consensus among ASEAN member states- a number of ASEAN members, for instance, initially criticized Philippines for provoking the Scarborough Shoal conflict- as Washington’s desire to not be seen as the one creating tensions in the region.
The Obama administration’s decision to reenter the fray is perhaps driven by possible behind-the-scenes consultations with its ASEAN allies. Beijing’s recent maneuvers in the SCS appear to have created greater intra-ASEAN unity on China’s assertiveness in the disputed waters, with Indonesian FM Marty M. Natalegawa stating last week that they demonstrated the need for a legally binding COC. Not far from the Obama administration’s mind are the lessons it drew from its first year in office in 2009. During that time, the Obama administration went to great lengths to court China including making concessions on a number of key issues like human rights. When this “open hand” was met with an uptick in Chinese assertiveness on a range of issues, administration officials concluded that Chinese leaders were interpreting their engagement policy as a sign of U.S. weakness. They vowed not to repeat that mistake.
Nevertheless, one shouldn’t place too much importance on the U.S. statement. Washington’s decision to issue the message through a junior official suggests it hopes to avoid a fierce dispute with Beijing.
Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat.