Pressure Urged on China Claims

Renewed military relations are unlikely to lessen U.S. focus on China’s claims in the South China Sea, experts say.

2010.10.08
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U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks at the Pentagon in Washington, Sept. 23, 2010.
AFP

An upcoming meeting between the U.S. defense secretary and his Chinese counterpart may help renew military ties, but is unlikely to end Washington's pressure on Beijing over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, according to analysts.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is scheduled to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, on Oct. 13 at the sidelines of a meeting in Vietnam of defense chiefs from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and eight other countries.

It is the first meeting between the American and Chinese defense chiefs since Beijing suspended military ties in January following a U.S. $6.4 billion arms deal between the U.S. and Taiwan.

Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, called on Secretary Gates to “keep a spotlight” on China’s activity in the South China Sea and to continue to pressure Beijing to “come to some sort of agreement with their neighbors” about competing territorial claims.

“China’s claim is ridiculous. It claims the whole South China Sea and at the same time it claims…sovereign rights within those seas,” Lohman said.

Measured approach

Richard Bush, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said that Beijing appears to have pulled back from the confrontational language it used in response to a recent statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Secretary Clinton angered Beijing in July when she told an ASEAN conference in Hanoi that the U.S. has a “national interest” in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Bush said that Gates is unlikely in his coming meetings to tackle the issue of competing territorial claims in the region.

“Some people misinterpreted Secretary Clinton’s remarks to say that we wanted to provide good offices for the settlement of those claims, but actually she didn’t,” Bush said.

“But I think Secretary Gates will stress the need to resolve those disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.”

Fred Brown, foreign policy institute fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said that both the U.S. and China will now likely take a more measured approach to territorial issues.

“What we’ve said is that we’ll facilitate a discussion,” he said, referring to possible talks between China and neighboring nations over their overlapping territorial claims.

“I certainly think [Gates] is going to make a point—has to make the point—that the U.S. relationship with China is very, very important and that we’re not about to harm that in any way. But we’re going to stick up for what we believe with regard to certain fundamental things.”

Regional influence

Lohman said that while U.S. investment in the region dwarfs that of China, most ASEAN nations are courting Chinese connections through trade.

“[But] they don’t have an interest in giving up all of the South China Sea to China…and so for that reason, they want the U.S. involved,” Lohman said.

“They want the U.S. protecting the sea lines of communication. None of them trust the Chinese to provide the kind of protection that we’ve provided for 60 years for international commerce,” he said.

Bush noted that Beijing’s claims have led to disputes with other nations that maintain a maritime presence in the region, including China’s recent detention of Vietnamese sailors fishing in what China calls its territorial waters.

Both China and Vietnam lay claim to the Paracel and Spratly island chains within the South China Sea.

Beijing also recently complained through its embassy in Japan about the Japanese Navy’s detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain involved in a ramming incident near the disputed Diaoyu Islands.

“I find this a little bit odd that China is holding the Vietnamese fishermen when it raised holy hell when the Japanese held the Chinese fishing boat captain. I don’t know if the two sides of their brain are operating or if it’s just a double standard, or what,” Bush said.

Claim of sovereignty

Marvin Ott, professor of national security policy at the National War College, said Beijing may be ambitious in its claims.

“[Former Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping used to [say]…’Bide our time until we have the capacity to act.’ And I think that’s really what’s been going on,” he said.

“China views the South China Sea as Chinese, not anybody else’s. It doesn’t belong to anybody else. However, there’s a problem. China doesn’t have the military air and naval power projection capacity to enforce a territorial claim and make it stick.”

The sideline talks between Gates and Liang are seen as another move to improve bilateral relations ahead of Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington scheduled for early 2011.

The Pentagon said that China has also renewed an invitation to Gates to visit Beijing, possibly next summer.

The two nations will hold a limited meeting on maritime security next week in Hawaii, while broader defense talks are planned for November or December in Washington.

Reported in Washington by Joshua Lipes.

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