By Peter Lee
The United States is rolling out a shift in its Asian security focus from North Asia to South Asia, while taking pains to assert that the policy is based on working with China, not against it.
At the same time, the Chinese government has decided to make an extremely public display of its boorish South China Sea policy, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate US irrelevance in the region. Beijing's policy may accomplish the exact opposite effect.
On May 26, Chinese patrol boats intentionally severed a seismic cable towed by a Vietnamese survey vessel working about 120 miles (193 kilometers) offshore of Vietnam and hundreds of miles south of China's Hainan Island.
The incident occurred about well within Vietnam's 200 nautical miles (370 km) wide Exclusive Economic Zone as defined by the Law of the Sea Treaty (signed by both Vietnam and China). To cut the cable 30 meters below the waterline, the Chinese patrol boat may have been equipped with a special rig, arguing a significant degree of premeditation and planning.
China's official response did little to ease doubts, or reduce tensions. To emphasize China's intransigence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu's May 28 remarks were reproduced under a separate heading on the Ministry's homepage:
China holds a consistent and clear-cut position on the South China Sea issue. China opposes Vietnam's oil and gas exploration activities within the waters under the jurisdiction of China which undermine China's rights and interests as well as jurisdiction over the South China Sea and violate the bilateral consensus on the South China Sea issue. Actions taken by China's competent authorities are regular maritime law enforcement and surveillance activities in the waters under the jurisdiction of China.
China has been committed to peace and stability of the South China Sea. We stand ready to make joint efforts with relevant parties to seek proper solutions to relevant disputes and conscientiously implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, with a view to safeguarding the stability of the South China Sea in real earnest.
I stress that Vietnam totally rejects all of the claims that China made on May 28 ...
China is deliberately misleading the public by attempting to describe an undisputed area as a disputed one.
China has violated our common understanding. China has called for peaceful resolution, but it's actions are complicating the situation in the East Sea. 
Last year, the US jumped into the issue on Japan's side, declaring that the Senkakus were covered by the US-Japan security treaty and thereby implying, however implausibly, that the United States was ready to go to war with China over these remote Taiwanese rocks.
The incident attracted heightened attention because the United States had announced its ''return to Asia'' on the back of the issue of maritime security, in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's words, "a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea".
2011 is, apparently, different.
On May 31, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and had the opportunity to flay the Chinese for their latest piece of high-handedness in the South China Sea ... but chose not to.
When asked by Malaysia's China Press if the United States had ''any position'' on the most recent incident, Campbell responded:
Almost every week we see incidents of various kinds (laughter), between fishing vessels ... between scientific vessels...prospecting ships...and the like. Our general policy remains the same. We discourage a resort to violence in these circumstances, or threats, and we want to see a process of dialogue emerge. We communicate intensively and privately with a variety of states associated with the South China Sea side [sic] and I think we are going to continue to do that as we go forward. 
Assistant Secretary Campbell's seemingly dismissive response is rather striking when reports of a plethora of recent alleged Chinese intrusions in the South China Sea are taken into account.
As it responded to the Chinese sabotage of its seismic vessel, Vietnam alleged another incident of harassment of a survey ship, and publicized allegations that hundreds of Chinese fishing boats are evading a Chinese government fishing ban by fishing in disputed waters off the Vietnamese coast, driving away Vietnamese vessels. 
Concurrently, the Philippines protested ''six or seven'' intrusions in the last few months by Chinese vessels and construction activity in disputed waters around the Spratly Islands and, in one case, the area around Palawan, which is apparently not part of the well-worn islands dispute.
In contrast to its middle-finger disdain for Vietnam, China is making some efforts to keep the bilateral negotiation ball rolling with the Philippines.
However, the Philippine government has apparently reached the conclusion that bilateral engagement with China is an excessively one-sided exercise.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino conceded late Wednesday that even in boxing, a sport where Filipinos excel, ''we are no match against them [China] even on one-on-one.''
''We are only 95 million [Filipinos] but there are 1.5 billion [Chinese],'' Aquino remarked in jest in trying to explain to reporters here the realities of asserting Philippine claims on the oil-rich island chains.
Aquino said any statements on the claims would always be counterproductive as it would not help the long-standing problem among claimant-nations in the Spratlys.
''Tensions will just increase if we engage in a verbal jostle. If they [the Chinese government] lose face, how will they compromise?'' he asked. 
All this activity is occurring in a rather significant context: the annual run of Southeast Asian meetings, beginning with the Shangri La Conference of defense ministers in Singapore, that last year became a post-Cheonan flash point for US and South Korean anger with China, Asian dissatisfaction with China, and China's resentment with US for its meddling in its relations with Asia.
This year, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will attend again. China's Chief of Staff General Liang Guangjie will also be there, the highest-ranking Chinese official to attend the conference in its history.
Both sides seem to be keen to demonstrate that US-China relations and military exchanges are back on an even keel after last year's tensions.
China's calculated high-handedness with Vietnam and the Philippines is perhaps a sign that it wants to claim the South China Sea as its turf, and declare that the United States does not have the regional standing to make China's hijinks in its watery ''near beyond'' a central issue in the ostensibly improved US-China relationship.
''Multi-lateralism'' or ''internationalization'' of South China Sea issues, especially with US input, is anathema to China, which is determined to keep all such discussions on a favorable, bilateral footing.
In May, General Liang was dispatched for a tour of Southeast Asia that included stops in Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. In each country, he obtained statements, presumably of dubious sincerity concerning their willingness to discuss key issues, such as the South China Sea problem, with China bilaterally.
One can also expect that an important purpose of Liang's visit was to demonstrate that China's engagement with Southeast Asia, be it beneficial or inimical, was a matter of sustained national will and capability that the United States government - beset by debt, declining foreign aid budgets, and a somewhat overstretched military - might be hard-pressed to match.
China appears to hope that its ostentatious firmness with Vietnam will dispel any illusions that ASEAN expressions of joint resolve will change China's actions in the South China Sea.
Vietnam has been vociferous in its insistence that the issue get a workout according to international law - an approach that would presumably offer China and its absurd nine-dashed line position on the South China Sea considerable difficulty. 
The endgame to Vietnam's non-stop legal strategizing is the hope of a referral to the United Nations carrying the combined weight of a united ASEAN and US support.
This might be seen as an acceptable, if not attractive, modus vivendi to most ASEAN countries. After all, though island-fetishism is an inescapable part of Asian politics, for most ASEAN members - with the possible exception of Vietnam - good economic relations with China are at least as important as defending rocks, reefs, and sandbars.
The potential shortcomings of the ''League of ASEAN Superheroes'' approach was indicated in Aquino's outreach to Brunei on the issue.
Aquino and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei agreed Wednesday to adopt a ''multilateral dialogue'' policy among claimant-countries in the Spratlys.Given the realities of the weakness of the individual ASEAN states, the US has not exactly brought the thunder in opposing Chinese machinations.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma told Manila-based reporters that the two heads of state wanted all stakeholders to ''engage in a multilateral dialogue'' along with fellow claimants China, Vietnam and Malaysia.
''The principal objective is peace and stability in the region. There should be peaceful cooperation and dialogue. There are many stakeholders, and they are all committed to share those goals,'' Coloma said.
Coloma, who was with the Philippine delegation, quoted the Sultan as saying, ''It's best to have good relations with China,'' but would not want to interpret it any other way...
Quite the contrary, at least on the surface.
Assistant Secretary Campbell stated that his intention is to ''demonstrate very clearly and in no uncertainty the deep commitment the US has to work with China in the Asia-Pacific region''.
As a nod to keeping a lid on tensions, China will prefer Campbell's remarks to the inflammatory statements of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara on island and maritime issues last year.
However, ''a deep commitment to working with China'' by the United States - and virtual silence on Chinese intrusions in the South China Sea - are perhaps not quite the reassuring tummy-rub for the Chinese dragon that they appear to be.
The real significance of the low-key US response probably has a lot to do with its recognition that the realities and potential of Southeast Asia as a pro-US region depend upon establishing a significant diplomatic and security presence in Southeast Asia through ASEAN.
Last year, the focus was on Northeast Asia, and America's anointed champion was South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak. The US sought to enhance his stature as a leading US ally by pushing the Cheonan issue and giving him conspicuous, agenda-setting roles at the Shangri La Conference and the G-20 meeting.
China responded by upgrading its alliance with North Korea, essentially declaring that persisting in the US-led North Asia South Korea/Japan security condominium was an anti-China policy and not an anti-North Korea policy. Lee's confrontational stance has led the United States into a dead end and everybody seems to be simply running out the clock on his term so a reset will not entail his personal humiliation.
The United States appears to have internalized the lessons of that setback and is looking toward affiliation with a loose multilateral union to claim a viable, welcome, and long-term presence in Southeast Asia, instead of pursuing a more traditional and confrontational approach that would attempt to lead current and potential regional allies such as Australia and Indonesia in promoting US policy for the region in opposition to China.
The Southeast Asia strategy is a more low-key approach that should have a longer shelf-life than the existential drama of a destabilizing anti-North Korea policy that looked a lot like an anti-China policy,
The United States is making an important global policy roll-out in the next few weeks. Southeast Asian policy is near its heart.
Reflecting the Obama administration's transparently keen desire to be rid of the Iraq and Afghanistan incubus, Campbell stated in his May 31 remarks that the US focus would be shifting from the Middle East and ''South Asia'' to East Asia.
And inside East Asia, according to Campbell, the focus would be moving from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia.
This year's US-endorsed regional power debutante is Indonesia, chairman of ASEAN and host of the November ASEAN conference that will bring President Obama to Bali.
The United States has aggressively pursued a revival of its relationship with a now-democratic Indonesia, and unambiguously regards it as the linchpin of the US Southeast Asia strategy. Campbell characterized Indonesia as ''incredibly important'' in Southeast Asia and beyond, and said that the US is supporting it ''completely.''
Indonesia for its part is ready to take seriously the responsibilities and opportunities of a populous, Muslim regional superpower athwart the passage between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
It is also a non-aligned state with significant, burgeoning economic relations with China and few, if any, front-line frictions of the sort that energize anti-Chinese/pro-US tendencies in Vietnam and the Philippines in the south, or the South Korea and Japan in the north.
The shifting focus to Southeast Asia and the need to navigate nimbly among associates instead of allies dovetails with the revised US defense posture that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is expected to unveil at the Shangri La defense ministers' conference in Singapore.
In a nod to strategic as well as budget realities, Gates is expected to use his speech to make a revised case for American power projection based on mobile, high impact assets like ships, planes, and drones, instead of planning and budgeting for land forces capable of fighting two major wars at once.
In Asia, asserting the indispensability of US forces to protecting prosperous and well-armed South Korean and Japanese democracies from North Korea is less compelling than putting American air and sea capabilities at the service of small, geographically diffuse, and militarily outgunned ASEAN states trying to achieve a favorable modus vivendi with China.
A key emphasis for the US military in Southeast Asia will be touting its unparalleled humanitarian relief capabilities to help the region cope with the massive disasters that seem to strike it every two years; and guiding the ASEAN states in the coastal monitoring and patrol capabilities that will permit them to identify and irk, if not always forestall, Chinese intruders.
The Philippines, for instance, claimed an intrusion by two fighter jets but were unable to pursue or identify the jets. (The Chinese Minister of Defense Liang Guangjie said they weren't Chinese MiGs, leaving the question of who they actually belonged to).
Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin though admitted that the country's military is no match to a superpower like China. However, he pointed out that the Philippines, being a sovereign nation, must have at least a credible and respectable force to safeguard and maintain her territorial integrity.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Eduardo Oban Jr said the Philippines military is planning to set up a coast watch system in the western seaboard in the next two to three years to monitor and secure the country's maritime borders and natural resources
This is very much of a piece with Japan's upgrading of its capabilities to monitor and project power all the way from Okinawa down to the Senkakus.
It also echoes a theme sounded by Assistant Secretary Campbell on May 31:
[To] increase the capacity of friends and partners to play a role in situational awareness with respect to their maritime claims, moving away from armies to navy and coast guard expeditionary capabilities essential to peace and stability.In some cases, hardening of boundaries may lead to decreased opportunities for conflict, as appears to be the case as the India and China pour money, troops, and infrastructure into their disputed land border.
However, it remains to be seen whether the South China Sea disputes, especially the Spratly fruit salad - islands claimed by five different countries based on conflicting historical claims but no compelling geographic logic - benefits from this approach.
Certainly, ''internationalizing'' the South China Sea disputes provided an easy and low-cost way for the United States to inject itself into Southeast Asian politics.
However, recent developments indicate that China has decided to make a show of its power to try to demonstrate the disadvantages, if not futility, of introducing the United States as an interlocutor.
In any event, the current approach is a welcome switch from the destabilizing and confrontational dynamic that drove Northeast Asian strategy.
The US can sit back and let ASEAN carry the ball ... and watch China strengthen the unity of the security alliance by demonstrating the shortcomings of Chinese-style bilateral negotiations ... and let China strengthen the economic integration of the alliance through expanded trade and investment.
Instead of democratic versus authoritarian blocs, Southeast Asia should look more like overlapping webs of relationships, with China and the United States sharing nodes linked by economic strands to China and security and diplomatic strands to the US.
If the US can effect such an outcome, it would be smart, subtle, and, almost needless to say, completely different from US foreign policy over the last decade and even the last year.
1. Vietnam condemns China in latest sovereignty violation, Tanh Nien News, May 30, 2011.
2. US Engagement in South East Asia, (At approximately the 50:00 mark in the audio), Center for International and Strategic Studies, May 31, 2011.
3. Chinese fishing boats violate Vietnam waters; gov't mulls patrol boats, May 29, 2011.
4. China denies incursion into West Philippine Sea, Philippine Star, June 3, 2011.
5. East Sea issue in the spotlight, Tanh Nien News, May 24, 2011.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.