Shadow Boxing Over Sea Dispute

Defense ministers from China and the US visit Southeast Asia to flex their military muscle amid the festering South China Sea dispute.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie (L) and  his Cambodian counterpart Tea Banh (R) sign a military cooperation pact in Phnom Penh, May 28, 2012.
China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie (L) and his Cambodian counterpart Tea Banh (R) sign a military cooperation pact in Phnom Penh, May 28, 2012.

The United States and China engaged in shadow boxing over the disputed South China Sea as their two defense ministers visited Southeast Asia the past week.

Delivering what appeared to be an opening punch, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie flew on a strategic trip to Cambodia beginning last Wednesday and, thanks to arrangements by his ally hosts, held surprise talks with his Southeast Asian counterparts who happened to be meeting in the capital Phnom Penh at that time.

The "consultative meeting" with the defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was a diplomatic coup of sorts for China.

It climaxed with Liang explaining Beijing's stance on the South China Sea, where rival territorial claims are one of the biggest potential flashpoints in the region.

Some ASEAN countries, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, have claims over parts of the vast sea which have put them at odds with Beijing, which says it controls the entire region.

Seldom do China and the ASEAN defense ministers hold special talks on the dispute over the South China Sea, which is believed to encompass huge oil and gas reserves and through which one-third of global seaborne trade passes.

So, "it is good" that Liang explained China's stance directly to ASEAN defense ministers, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh said.

In an indication of Beijing's expanding military role in the region, Liang also signed a defense cooperation agreement with Cambodia, including the establishment of a military training facility in the country, Beijing's closest Southeast Asian ally.  

While Liang spent four days in Cambodia, including a relaxed visit to the Angkor Wat temple complex tourist site in Siem Reap province, he did not find it necessary to travel to Singapore at the weekend for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, which brought together senior civilian and military chiefs from nearly 30 Asia-Pacific states to foster security cooperation.

Last year, Liang led the Chinese delegation to the dialogue, the first time Beijing sent a defense minister to the meeting sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.


With Liang's conspicuous absence this time, apparently to avoid any public questioning of or challenges to its assertiveness over the South China Sea claims at the Shangri-La dialogue,  U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta dominated the meeting and delivered the counter-punch.

He announced that Washington will shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia.

In eight years, the U.S. would have 60 percent of its ships in the Pacific, up from the current 50 percent, as part of a "steady, deliberate" effort to bolster the American role in an area deemed vital to future of the U.S., he said.

Currently, the United States has a 50-50 split between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic, which covers Europe.

Washington's plans for the enhanced naval presence in the Pacific immediately came under fire in Beijing.

"Many are concerned that ever-expanding U.S. military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific will raise tensions with other big powers in the region, notably China, the biggest trade partner of many countries in the region and an emerging world power," a commentary by Chinese state news agency Xinhua said.

"Many in China are legitimately worried that the United States attempts to contain China with Cold War-style military alliances and endless war games in the region."

In a move that may further fuel tensions, Panetta also issued a strong call for nations involved in the South China Sea dispute to set up a code of conduct, including rules governing maritime rights and navigation in the region, and then develop a forum where disputes can be settled.

China has always insisted that negotiations over disputed islands in the vast sea with its Southeast Asian neighbors be held on a bilateral basis in an apparent bid to avoid internationalizing the issue.

Washington however has been emphasizing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, saying it is a national interest considering the U.S. $1.2 trillion worth of U.S. trade passing through the sea every year and the U.S. Navy's use of the sea to transit between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

U.S. engagement

Vietnam and the Philippines, on the front line of the South China Sea dispute with Beijing, have also sought greater U.S. engagement in the region to check what they call Beijing's increasing assertiveness on the back of its rising military strength and growing economic clout.

The United States is moving to help the two countries develop and enforce their maritime rights.

Underlining Washington's deepening ties with Hanoi, its former battle enemy, Panetta on Sunday visited Cam Ranh Bay, a major base used by U.S. forces in the Vietnam War. He is the most senior U.S. official to visit the bay since the war ended in 1975.

Vietnam has decided to open the port on a commercial basis to foreign naval ships to resupply and undergo repair work.

"It will be particularly important to be able to work with partners like Vietnam, to be able to use harbors like this, as we move our ships from our ports on the West Coast, [and] our stations here in the Pacific," Panetta said, speaking from the flight deck of the USNS Richard E. Byrd, Agence France Presse reported.

Panetta never mentioned China as he spoke to crew members on the Byrd and later to reporters, according to the Associated Press. But with the South China Sea as a backdrop, it said, he left no doubt that the U.S. will maintain a strong presence in the region and wants to help allies protect themselves and their maritime rights.

Talks of broadening military cooperation with the Philippines have also been under way since last year, when President Barack Obama's administration announced a strategic "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region.

In November, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Manila and proclaimed continued military support from the deck of a warship.

The Philippines, which kicked U.S. forces bases off their soil in 1992, expects a "greater number" of United States warships to visit the country as Washington increases its military presence in Asia in the coming years, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Some analysts caution that the American moves to help countries in Southeast Asia develop their own military capabilities and security may backfire.

"Even as these steps are, I think, very welcomed by the region, nevertheless I hear from many sources in this region that there are growing concerns that this may embolden the Philippines and perhaps other countries whose capabilities are being enhanced and that, in fact, may risk greater confrontation," said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert in the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But Panetta said the concerns may be misplaced.

"I don't think we should take the attitude that just because we improve their capabilities that we're asking for more trouble because that will guarantee that the only powers in this region then are going to be the United States and China as opposed to other nations having the ability to engage in defending and promoting their own security, and I think that would be wrong.

"So I think that it is a positive step to be able to encourage and develop those capabilities and at the same time make very clear that those countries in exchange have to abide by a clear set of rules and requirements and regulations that all nations should abide by. And that's something that frankly has to be done on the diplomatic side as well."





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