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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Rising China tests the waters

August 21, 2010

By Abraham M Denmark and Daniel M Kliman
Asia Times
August 20, 2010

With joint exercises between the navies of the
United States and Vietnam kicking off, Washington
and Beijing's rivalry over the South China Sea is
heating up. Although exercises with Vietnam
involve non-combat training such as search and
rescue, they reinforce recent remarks by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Speaking at last month's meeting of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),
Clinton affirmed that peacefully resolving
territorial disputes in the South China Sea
amounted to a US ''national interest''. What
followed was a sharp retort from one claimant -
Beijing - with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi
labeling Clinton's remarks as an ''attack''.

Conflicting claims in the South China Sea, which
involve China and five other nations in the
region, have long flown under the radar in
Washington. Only now, as the South China Sea
makes headlines, has understanding of the issue increased.

For decades, China, Taiwan, the Philippines,
Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia have claimed
sovereignty over all or part of the South China
Sea. China's claim, which encompasses roughly the
entire body of water from China's south coast
past Vietnam and the Philippines, reaching almost
to Singapore, is by far the most ambitious. Its
claim is based on maps from the 1930s and some
shards of Chinese pottery discovered on currently uninhabited islands.

Behind claims to the South China Sea lie
fundamentally realpolitik considerations: control
of trade routes, access to natural resources, and fear.

Annually, one third of the world's maritime trade
traverses the South China Sea, which is also home
to some of the largest untapped stores of oil and
natural gas in the world - some optimistic
Chinese analysts refer to it as ''the second
Persian Gulf''. The South China Sea is a major
highway linking the oil fields of the Middle East
and the factories of East Asia. Over 80% of
China's oil imports flow through the South China
Sea, and Japan and South Korea likewise receive
the lifeblood of their economic engines via this
strategic waterway. As influential Asia-watcher
Robert Kaplan has put it, the South China Sea's
importance to the region makes it the ''Asian Mediterranean''.

Also intertwined with the South China Sea dispute
is Southeast Asian uncertainty about the nature
of China's rise. Although Beijing has become a
key trading partner for most of the region,
decades of military expansion (especially in the
maritime sphere) has made Southeast Asian
capitals understandably concerned about Chinese maritime claims.

Tensions in the South China Sea have waxed and
waned over the years, occasionally leading to
violent confrontation. Most recently, in 2002,
China and ASEAN signed a Declaration which
committed all claimants to peacefully resolve
their disputes. Since this signing, several
claimants have submitted their disputes to
international organizations for arbitration. Most
recently, Singapore and Malaysia resolved a
dispute using the International Court of Justice.

China, however, remains outside this trend of
reconciliation and international arbitration. It
has attempted to keep disputes bilateral,
apparently believing that its expanding economic
and military power will force the smaller
countries of Southeast Asia to eventually
acquiesce. This explains Beijing's vigorous
rejection of Secretary Clinton's offer for
multilateral arbitration - China's ability to
coerce smaller states will decrease when they
have neighbors and the United States behind them.
Unfortunately for China, the number of parties
involved and Beijing's signing of the 2002
Declaration with ASEAN implies an international nature to these disputes.

Instead of pursuing international arbitration,
Beijing has opted for a more hardline approach to
the South China Sea. In direct contravention of
international law, China has asserted the right
to regulate what ships can navigate and conduct
research in its exclusive economic zone. In May
of this year, Beijing ratcheted up its rhetoric ,
labeling the South China Sea as a ''core national
interest''. Until then, the Chinese government
had limited this phrase to basic matters of
national interest, such as economic development
and territorial sovereignty (code for Taiwan,
Tibet, and Xinjiang). The use of ''core
interest'' to describe the South China Sea
signaled a new, aggressive phase in China's approach.

The flexing of China's naval muscles has
supported this rhetoric. China has harassed
foreign navies operating off its southern coast;
the most publicized case to date is the USS
Impeccable, which was swarmed and almost rammed
by Chinese vessels. Such maritime confrontations,
though usually unreported in the media, continue
today. China's navy has also conducted a series
of exercises along its periphery, and just last
month, conducted a major exercise within the
South China Sea that involved mock long-range
precision strike and attacks against enemy jet fighters.

The world has taken notice of China's
increasingly aggressive behavior. Many will
interpret this more hardline approach to the
South China Sea as a leading indicator of a risen
China's future behavior. For decades, China's
backward economy and weak military meant that its
attitude on international issues attracted little
notice. But with China emerging as one of the
world's most influential nations, its position on
the South China Sea - and other issues - is
closely scrutinized. While most nations,
including the United States, welcome the economic
dimension of China's rise, many increasingly
question the purpose of China's robust military
modernization efforts. Add to this uncompromising
rhetoric surrounding the South China Sea, and the
use of military exercises as a thinly-veiled
threat, and China's rise appears less pacific
than its mantra of “peaceful development” would indicate.

So what is to be done?

In recent months the Barack Obama administration
has taken an important step by raising the South
China Sea's international profile. Public
statements by high-level American officials call
attention to Beijing's behavior in the South China Sea.

But this is only the first step.

The United States and its allies and partners in
the Asia-Pacific need to coordinate to develop a
common position on the South China Sea. This
position should emphasize sustaining open access
to an international body of water, an angle on
the South China Sea that will not place nations
in the awkward - and unwanted - position of
choosing between the United States and China.

Privately, Washington and Asian capitals should
convey to Beijing that they consider the South
China Sea a leading indicator of how a risen
China will behave on the world stage. American
officials should unambiguously state that whether
Beijing allows unhindered passage through the
South China Sea and seeks to peacefully resolve
territorial disputes there will go a long way
toward determining the future shape of US policy toward China.

The United States and other like-minded
Asia-Pacific nations should take additional steps
to ratchet up the costs Beijing will incur if it
seeks to extend sovereignty deep into the South
China Sea. These steps include building up local
naval capacity and expanding military
cooperation. In particular, joint naval exercises
with Vietnam should be gradually expanded. Over
the long term, the United States must invest in
its navy to ensure it retains a significant
presence in the South China Sea for decades to come.

Lastly, the US Senate should finally ratify the
UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In
the United States, ratification has the support
of almost every national security leader and
expert from both political parties. Because
UNCLOS defines the illegality of China's claims,
remaining outside of the treaty weakens American
efforts to establish a bulwark against Beijing's ambitions.

We should not forget that Beijing views the South
China Sea as a leading indicator of how the
international community will respond to China's
growing power and assertiveness. An anemic
international reaction will embolden China, not
only in the South China Sea, but elsewhere as
well. Insistence on open access to the South
China Sea, if backed by US and regional action,
will incline China to reassess its approach.

Abraham M Denmark is a fellow and Dr Daniel M
Kliman is a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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