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US goes fishing for trouble

July 30, 2010

By Peter Lee
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
July 29, 2010

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
roiled China at the recent Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign
ministers' meeting in Hanoi by stating that the
United States had "a national interest in freedom
of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime
commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea".

She also expressed support for a "collaborative
diplomatic process" on the matter of disputes in
the South China Sea - anathema to China, which is
committed to a series of separate bilateral
negotiations with the various nations with claims
on the Spratly (called Nansha by Chinese) and
Paracel (Called Xisha by Chinese) Islands.

A certain amount of media energy was expended to
frame Clinton's remarks as a response to a
"disturbing" expansion of China's definition of
its core interests beyond Tibet, Xinjiang and
Taiwan to include the South China Sea.

There is a good deal of evidence to indicate that
China is not trying to ratchet up tensions in the
South China Sea, at least not vis-a-vis its southern neighbors.

Rather, it appears that the United States is once
again using a contentious issue to exacerbate a
problem, isolate China diplomatically, and to
make room for an expanded role for Washington as
the protector of the interests of China's smaller
and more anxious neighbors - while diverting
attention from certain provocative US actions.

Kyodo News on June 3 cited unnamed officials to
allege that China asserted that the South China
Sea was a "core interest" during the visit of the
US National Security Council's Jeffrey Bader and
the State Department's James Steinberg to Beijing
in March. The rest of the media - including the
Chinese papers - seem to have picked it up from there.

The purpose of the March meeting was to gain
America's recommitment to non-interference in
China's internal affairs, particularly as it
pertained to Tibet and Taiwan, as the price China
demanded for joining the United Nations sanctions
vote against Iran over Tehran's nuclear program.

The issue was resolved to China's satisfaction
with a reaffirmation of the one-China policy. The
mini-reset in Sino-US relations was marked by a
statement by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs
valuing "the US side's reiteration of its
principled commitment on issues concerning Taiwan and Tibet".

A senior Chinese diplomat declared that President
Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao had "reached
an important new consensus" during a phone call.
"China has an understanding with the United
States for each to respect the core interests of the other." [1]

China thereupon participated in Obama's Nuclear
Security Summit and joined the sanctions-writing
effort against Iran at the UN Security Council.

Given the outcome, it would appear unlikely that
China would have used this meeting to make new
and provocative claims concerning the South China
Sea that the United States would have found
unacceptable but ignored in March and waited until July to challenge.

In any case, China's treatment of the South China
Sea disputes is fundamentally different from its
attitude toward "core interests" of Taiwan, Tibet
and Xinjiang. These are defined as China's
internal affairs and Beijing accepts no
third-party involvement in its dealings.

Unambiguously, China treats the conflicts in the
South China Sea as an international issue.

The main point of contention is not whether China
will discuss South China Sea disputes with
neighboring countries; it is whether discussions
will be held bilaterally or multilaterally.

What is most likely is that China raised the
issue of the South China Sea with Bader and
Steinberg, not in the context of its myriad
disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan
and Malaysia, but in the context of intensive US
intelligence-gathering in the region.

The United States is very interested in
intelligence-gathering to monitor movements of
submarines from the massive new People's
Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) base near Sanya in
Hainan, and to map the South China Sea floor to
make the task of detecting and (in event of
conflict) destroying Chinese subs more easily.

The primary point of friction is the surveillance
vessel Impeccable, which lumbers across the South
China Sea inside China's Economic Exclusion Zone
(EEZ) towing sonar gear listening for Chinese
subs and, apparently, employing active sonar to map the sea bottom.

The United States exploits a loophole in the Law
of the Sea Treaty (a treaty that the US has not
ratified) which, while restricting unauthorized
economic exploitation, permits peacetime military
transit through EEZs by other countries.

In America's opinion, sending the Impeccable on
extended cruises through China's EEZ to degrade
China's submarine warfare capabilities is completely legal.

China stations its ballistic-missile submarines -
a key element in modernizing its nuclear
deterrent - at Hainan, so American efforts to
diminish the effectiveness of this deterrent
could, indeed, be construed as a matter of China's "core interest".

However, to this date China has not mustered the
geopolitical determination to respond to the US's
shenanigans in the South China Sea as an
existential threat. The US naval presence in the
South China Sea is addressed with a certain lack of superpower gravitas.

In a widely publicized incident, Chinese vessels
approached the Impeccable in 2009 and harassed
it, forcing the ship to deploy its fire hoses and
to be exposed to the spectacle of Chinese sailors
stripped to their underwear in retaliation.

In an apparently less-publicized incident this
year, Chinese ships hassled the Impeccable in March.

The Chinese government also vented its
displeasure on the issue of intensive
surveillance at the recent Shangri-La defense
ministers' conference in Singapore. However, the
Chinese delegation characterized the surveillance
as an obstacle to a resumption of Sino-US
military exchanges, not an infringement of China's "core interests".

If there is truly a new Chinese doctrine
declaring the South China Sea as a "core
interest", as Kyodo News reported - and China has
yet to officially take that position, despite
discussion in the Chinese media - then it appears
to be recent, partial and fatally ambiguous.

It would appear that China wants to draw a
conditional red line around the South China Sea -
as opposed to the absolute red lines around
Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan - that would not be
crossed in the case of local atoll-grabbing by
its neighbors, but would be violated if any
nation clubbed together with the United States to
challenge China's strategic freedom of action in the South China Sea.

In a recent Global Times editorial "American
shadow over the South China Seas", China's "core
interests" in the South China Sea were
referenced, but in the context of competition with the United States.

     With growing economic power, China and the
US may encounter more clashes in China's adjacent
sea. Few Southeast Asian countries would like to
get in the middle of Sino-US tensions, but like
many other regions, they are caught in a dilemma:
economically close to China yet militarily guarded against China.

     Southeast Asian countries need to understand
any attempt to maximize gains by playing a
balancing game between China and the US is risky.

     China's tolerance was sometimes taken
advantage of by neighboring countries to seize
unoccupied islands and grab natural resources under China's sovereignty.

     China's long-term strategic plan should
never be taken as a weak stand. It is clear that
military clashes would bring bad results to all
countries in the region involved, but China will
never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means. [2]

This is a distinction that China has a certain
amount of difficulty in conveying to ASEAN
countries, and the United States has shown little interest in accepting it.

In this context, it would appear that Clinton's
statement at the ASEAN meeting declaring the US's
national interest in the resolution of the South
China Sea disputes was a piece of diplomatic
mischief-making designed to highlight the
hollowness of Chinese pretensions to military and
diplomatic eminence in the South China Sea, and
to retaliate for Chinese intransigence on the
joint US-South Korea exercises off the coasts of the Korean Peninsula.

With the assistance of the Western media, Clinton
successfully diverted the focus from US
monitoring to the severe but by no means critical
issue of disputes between China and the maritime
nations of Southeast Asia over the scattered
rocks and reefs of the South China Sea.

The Japanese Asahi Shimbun newspaper provided a
classic example. The headline read "China
ratcheting up regional tension". The text,
however, would confuse readers attempting to
learn how China was ratcheting up tensions.

     The latest nervousness felt by rival
claimants to the Spratly Islands, which are
strategically located near several primary
shipping lanes, was highlighted by an incident in
late April when a fleet of Chinese fishing boats
was operating near Layang Layang island, one of
dozens of islands in the Spratly group.

     A Malaysian warship and a spotter plane
approached to within 300 meters of the boats.

     The fishermen repeatedly yelled through
their communications equipment: "This area is
part of our economic sea zone. We are engaged in
routine work. We have traditionally always fished
here. Do not obstruct our business."

     Chinese media reported that sailors on the
Malaysian warship removed the cover of a cannon
mounted on the stern to show that they meant
business and continued to shadow the fishing boats.

     More than 900 Chinese fishing boats
routinely operate in these waters. The boats,
along with their crews and fishing hauls, are
routinely seized by neighboring countries. [3]

America's willingness to fish in the troubled
waters of the South China Sea was encouraged by
other countries' frustrations in dealing with China over the islands issue.
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