By Peter Lee
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." 
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. 
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. 
On official Chinese maps, the southern ocean boundary of sovereign Chinese territory, defined by the notorious "nine dash line" hangs down like a distended scrotum, extending hundreds of kilometers from Hainan, covering 80% of the South China Sea, and coming within a few kilometers of the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
In actuality, many of the western Spratly Islands are controlled by Vietnam; the Philippines and Malaysia maintain effective sovereignty over a set near their archipelagoes; and China scraps for control of the northern quadrant of the islands. 
Remarkably, the biggest island, Itu Aba (its name reportedly means "What is this?" in Malay) is controlled by Taiwan. Taiwan keeps 600 troops on the island and, much to Vietnam's dismay, constructed an airstrip. In 2008, Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian used Itu Aba for some high-profile geopolitical posturing, visiting the island with two destroyers and two submarines.
A realistic settlement would presumably give China some reduced fraction of the South China Sea, some kind of sovereignty over some of the islands it controls, and a share of the undersea riches (the Spratlys have been characterized, oil-wise, as "another Kuwait").
Achieving a settlement based on traditional national boundaries will be difficult. The northern Spratlys are a fruit salad of Chinese, Vietnamese, Philippine and Taiwanese flags, with no clearly defined zones of control that can be neatly divvied up and formalized.
In 2002, a "Declaration of Conduct" was concluded between ASEAN and China. It was essentially a standstill agreement by which the signatories undertook to "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner".
The document stated some general principles but was not legally binding; nor did it provide any dispute-resolution mechanism. 
While trumpeting its willingness to engage in a series of bilateral talks with its neighbors, China has "sliced the salami" in the words of one analyst, incrementally upgrading its presence on the islands it does control, while the PLAN behaves more assertively against the fishing boats and government vessels of other stakeholder nations.
Vietnam (which prefers the term "East Sea" to "South China Sea" for obvious reasons) has become extremely vocal about its claims in the Spratlys and has tried to "multilateralize" the issue through international institutions such as the UN Law of the Sea Commission's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
For its southern waters, Vietnam made a joint submission, together with Malaysia, that made a sound scientific and legal case for a definition of its EEZ that would significantly whittle away at China's South China Sea claims.
China for its part was only able to submit a map with the notorious "nine dash line" that claims 80% of the South China Sea, an indication that China is unable to summon up the diplomatic and strategic fortitude to pursue a reasonable resolution of the South China Sea mess.
Both China and Vietnam have attempted to gain US support for their position by granting oil exploration concessions in contested zones to US oil companies.
In the 1990s, China signed an exploration agreement with Crestone Energy that went nowhere; US officials assert that China warned off Exxon Mobil and BP from signing agreements with Vietnam for activities in the South China Sea.
The United States has been actively wooing Vietnam as a partner in matters of the South China Sea.
Before Clinton's speech to ASEAN, commander of US Pacific Command Admiral Willard visited Hanoi to announce American concern over the South China Sea disputes, which he declared to be a "vital US interest" because of the US$1.3 trillion in trade goods that pass through it. 
He was followed by Senator James Webb, the US Congress' point man for weaning smaller Asian authoritarian regimes such as Myanmar and Vietnam from the overbearing Chinese dragon.
Webb also raised the danger that some countries might use "force or threats of force" to advance their claims in the South China Sea, and called on all involved countries to abide by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC). 
An influential US think-tank, the Center for a New American Security (co-founded by Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell), introduced a new element: inviting Indonesia (now the object of intensive American diplomatic blandishments, including resumption of exchanges with the brutal Kopassus special forces) to serve as South China Seas peacemaker.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded to these US maneuverings with an exasperated statement on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on July 25. Instead of asserting a "core interest", Yang framed the South China Sea matter - at least in the context of China's relations with its near neighbors - as one of "preserving China's sovereignty and lawful interests", later discussing China's "reasonable concerns" in the area.
He may have been responding to anxieties expressed in the Chinese media that, by seizing on the purported "core interest" framing, the United States had successfully boxed China into an untenable position of having to alienate its maritime neighbors in order to assert its superpower credibility vis-a-vis the US.
While his advocacy of bilateral talks instead of an ASEAN process to resolve the issue (though he did hold out the possibility of a meeting of ministers "when conditions were ripe") may not have been entirely persuasive, Yang was probably more convincing when he declared that there were no serious threats to peace, freedom of transit, or security in the South China Sea at present that justified "raising a hubbub".
Yang did not address Vietnam by name. But he made efforts to imply that critics that sided with outsiders against China would suffer the disapproval of their Asian peers:
Those countries that trumpeted the "South China Sea problem" didn't realize that this meeting gave China a platform for its proposals on the South China Sea issue. The representatives of ten or more Asian countries congratulated China. They said that Minister Yang's remarks had excited the aspirations of the Asian people and made them feel proud.Yang's most significant statements were probably about the United States. He stated:
Whether or not the South China Sea issue would become a conspicuous issue at the ASEAN foreign ministers' conference in Hanoi was a matter to which the Chinese delegation paid great attention. Because a series of trends in the United States and other countries had led us to anticipate this. As expected, the US side did not pay attention to China's remonstrances. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking from a prepared text, talked big about the relation of the South China Sea to American interests, talked big about the pressing importance of preserving freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, talked big about opposing "threats" in the South China Sea ... This seemingly impartial talk was actually an attack on China ...American observers who take consolation from the impression that things are only bad with China in the military sphere should note that China's foreign minister is accusing the United States of a premeditated diplomatic attack on China.
And, no matter what one thinks about the fate of the rocks and sandbars of the Spratly Islands, Yang is right about US motives for raising the South China Sea issue.
Is the United States purposefully antagonizing China out of pique? Is it setting the stage for a serious confrontation in the event of a succession crisis in North Korea? Or is it preparing international opinion for China-targeted sanctions over Iran?
After all, now that the European Union has imposed more stringent sanctions on Iran - and Iran has floated the idea of removing a significant amount of its international financial transactions out of the realm of the dollar and euro by denominating its China energy trade in Yuan - there is going to be pressure on the US to protect its allies by keeping China's paws out of the Iranian honey jar.
The interesting question is, as US General David Petraeus famously put it, "How does this end?"
And to what end? What does the US expect to gain by broadening and deepening the antagonism between Beijing and Washington?
Presumably, we'll learn the answer in the next few months..... with the upcoming new wars in the Middle East and beyond....
Vietnam is now willing to look for support from the old American enemy against China, the ancient menacing neighbor.
In the ASEAN conference, for instance, Clinton talked with Hanoi, praising Vietnam as a dynamic and great nation. The Pentagon has also noted China's actions with alarm, particularly its persistent warnings to American and other international oil firms to pull out of exploration deals with Hanoi in southern Vietnamese waters. Executives at ExxonMobil - the world's biggest oil firm - were approached by Chinese envoys and told that its business in China would be hurt unless it pulled out of a deal with Vietnam.
Then, when Beijing accepted Moscow's bargain, did it walk into a Soviet trap? Did Joseph Stalin, knowingly or not, create a future territorial clash between China and the US over America's longstanding reach in these seas?
Chinese experts allegedly bought some papers from Soviet archives documenting that Stalin supported the early establishment of the Israeli state just to set a trap for America in the Middle East. With the existence of the Israeli state, the US, with a strong Jewish community, was bound to support it against neighboring Arab states. The Soviet Union could then switch alliances and support the Arabs - or at least torment America via proxy wars against Israel.
Did Stalin, suspicious of Mao's inclination to work with the US, spring a similar trap against China and the US in the South China Sea? That would be one good reason for China to withdraw from the old snare.
Still, China's policy of opening up to the world, and its decision to move development to the coasts and away from the rivers (where it was historically located) naturally requires a projection into the oceans, and thus into the South China Sea.
Moreover, Beijing's present claims in the South China Sea meet two sets of China's needs. First, it promises to at least partially quench its thirst for energy. Second, it extends its area of trade security, which otherwise would be totally in the hands of the US, the only country able to safeguard worldwide maritime routes.
Then, with or without Clinton's remarks, China has many entangled objective troubles in its south. In fact, the overall issue is that China is prisoner to its geography - and has territorial disputes with all its bordering states and territories. 
This is further complicated by its claim in the south. All of China's neighbors could grow fonder of an American presence in the region as China grows stronger and more powerful, for the simple reason that a distant friend is better than a close foe.
Then, once again, the issue for China is to develop a strategy taking into account the resolution or easing of its territorial disputes and coming to terms with the idea that the US presence in Asia could be indefinite, possibly permanent.
Even if in 20 years the US economy could not afford its fleet, China's neighbors, and even China, might be willing to finance it, so as to have some kind of neutral referee in place. This would ease disputes and clashes that had the potential to unravel economic development in the region - something that needs go on for several decades if Asians are to reach the per capita gross domestic product of the US.
Is Clinton hinting at this future or simply tossing some salt on one of China's many open wounds? The tough reality for China is that those wounds could possibly fester faster without an American presence in the region than with it....
As Vietnam and China celebrate an official "Year of Friendship" marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties, Hanoi is quietly pursuing a balance of power plan against its neighbor to the north. The contours of the still-evolving strategy consist of developing a common position vis-a-vis China within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), engaging the United States and forging security ties with other key regional powers.
How this approach unfolds, however, will depend as much on domestic Vietnamese politics as the interests of the individual countries involved. Hanoi has used its chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN to put territorial disputes in the South China Sea on the grouping's agenda. China and ASEAN signed a non-binding code of conduct in 2002 and since then Beijing has sought to resolve differences through bilateral negotiations, where one-on-one it often dominates the other side.
Within ASEAN only Vietnam has a contested land border with China in addition to ongoing maritime disputes over the Paracels (called Xisha by the Chinese) and Spratlys (called Nansha by the Chinese), two island chains in the South China Sea. The Philippines also claims ownership of the Spratlys, while Malaysia and Brunei have partial claims over the archipelago. Other ASEAN countries have been happy to let Vietnam bear the brunt of Chinese pressure while they develop stronger trade and investment ties to Beijing.
So far, cooperation between Vietnam and Malaysia seems to be the most advanced. Last year, they made a joint submission to the United Nations commission that administers the Convention on the Law of the Sea. The filing, which delineated Vietnam's and Malaysia's respective exclusive economic zones in the lower part of the South China Sea, was quickly rejected as "illegal" by China, which claims the entire maritime area from Taiwan to Singapore.
China's aggressive behavior has made other ASEAN nations without a direct stake in the island disputes take notice. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 23 that the US 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", Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam were among the dozen countries that expressed support for a "collaborative diplomatic process".
By openly wading into the South China Sea dispute, the US has given ASEAN support to develop a more coherent regional response. Vietnam reportedly urged the US in private talks to take a stronger stand, and Hanoi would have the most to gain if ASEAN countries stuck together more consistently when dealing with China.
Hanoi's poor human-rights record makes it unlikely that the US and Vietnam will pursue an outright military alliance, but the two former adversaries now hold annual security talks and periodic military exchanges. In recent years, the US Navy has made over a dozen visits to Vietnamese ports and on at least two occasions Vietnamese officers have been flown out to visit US carriers.
While the Communist Party leadership in Hanoi remains deeply ambivalent about getting too close to Washington, there is a growing realization that the US is essential to counter-balancing China's rise.
On the other hand, Vietnamese leaders have no qualms about partnering with Russia, a former Cold War communist ally. A deepening security relationship with Moscow now provides an additional hedge against China and has helped to modernize Vietnam's military, which is still largely reliant on Russian equipment dating from the 1970s.
Hanoi is now among Russia's top arms clients, including recently signed contracts for six Kilo-class diesel submarines and 20 Sukhoi Su-30 multi-role fighters. Later this year, Vietnam will take possession of two Russian-made Gepard-class frigates, and discussions are underway for Russia to build and help operate a new submarine base in Vietnam, possibly in the strategic Cam Ranh Bay.
India is another regional player finding common strategic cause with Vietnam. On July 27, the countries agreed to strengthen their defense cooperation during a visit by Indian army chief General V K Singh. New Delhi is wary of Beijing's efforts to extend its reach into the Indian Ocean. China and India also have a longstanding border dispute, which flared into war in 1962.
New Delhi and Hanoi share China-related strategic concerns and have enjoyed historically close ties forged from their common anti-colonial struggles. Both militaries also operate similar Russian equipment.
An ostensibly commercial deal could deepen India-Vietnam strategic ties. BP, which is raising capital to cover the cleanup costs of its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has put various of its global assets up for sale, including an investment in the Nam Con Son basin off the southern coast of Vietnam. According to press reports, Vietnam's government has given approval to a consortium of state-owned Indian energy firms and Petro Vietnam to buy out BP's stake.
Significantly, this large-scale natural gas project is located in an area of the Nam Con Son basin where BP announced in March 2009 that it would cease exploration in response to pressure from China. By turning to Indian firms less likely to be intimidated by Beijing, Vietnam is now strongly asserting energy rights in its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Meanwhile, Japan and Vietnam have just announced the establishment of a bilateral security dialogue involving foreign and defense ministry officials. The security talks represent a significant evolution in the bilateral relationship, which until now has concentrated on trade and aid. Japan currently holds such talks with the US, Australia and India.
It is not surprising that Vietnam is hedging against China's strategic threat. The two countries have a long history of conflict, including China's seizure of the Paracels from Vietnam in 1974. The two neighbors also fought a brief border war in 1979 and fought a short naval battle in the Spratlys in 1988. According to diplomatic sources, the two sides have also engaged in unreported military clashes at sea as recently as 2005 and perhaps again in 2008.
To be sure, Vietnam is not in a diplomatic or geographical position to lead an international coalition against China. Within the Communist Party leadership, especially among cadres responsible for public security and ideology, there are many who aim to emulate China's model of liberal economics and closed politics. A pro-China faction has recently backed a crackdown on bloggers and activists who have protested against China's encroachment on Vietnam-claimed territories.
For now, however, there appears to be a relative consensus within Vietnam's leadership to balance China's influence by cultivating relations with other regional powers, including the US, Russia and India. How that consensus evolves and strategic ties develop will depend largely on how the balance of power is struck among Communist Party factions at next year's highly anticipated National Party Congress....
is an article claiming that the 'revolutions' sweeping the Moslem world are motivated by Rothschild/Soros interests which want to prevent Islamic banking from getting a bigger share of increasingly lucrative markets....
Elsewhere it was reported that the American airforce has bought software which makes it easy to handle multiple false personas on electronic media, so a few spooks can appear to be a vast crowd of indignant people....
1. See The blessing of China's threat La Stampa, June 4, 2007.
1. China, US agree to respect "core interests": diplomat, Reuters, April 6, 2010.
2. American shadow over South China Sea, Global Times, July 26, 2010.
3. China ratcheting up regional tension, Asahi Shimbun, Jul 24, 2010.
4. File:Spratly with flags, Wikipedia.
5. Joint Declaration of ASEAN and China On Cooperation in the Field of Non-traditional Security Issues, Foreign Ministry of China, Nov 4, 2002.
6. US, Vietnam tighten military relationship, DTI News, Jun 9, 2010.
7. Vietnam seeks closer cooperative ties with the US, VoV News, Jul 9, 2010.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.