US Backs Away from South China Sea Confrontation

For a nation that is supposedly paying more attention to Asia and building relationships with old and new friends, the US response to recent Chinese moves against Vietnam and the Philippines has been mealy-mouthed.

For sure, Secretary of State John Kerry accused China of “provocative actions” in bringing an oil rig and various protective vessels to an area about 220 km east of the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang. But this merely provided for a war of words, with China claiming it was the US which was being “dangerous and provocative.”

There was not a hint in Kerry’s words that China’s actions in the South China Sea have been consistently aggressive, arrogant and contrary to the letter and spirit of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The fundamental problem for the US is that it has adopted a selfish and self-defeating stance by claiming neutrality on the issues of ownership of the sea’s islets, reefs, rocks and shoals, proclaiming that it is only interested in navigation rights. Thus China can and does make the most outrageous claims to territory and hence to the sea and seabed resources without a squeak from the supposed superpower.

In the case of Vietnam, China claims its right to drill in what Vietnam sees as its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone on the basis of ownership of the Paracel islands, the neareast of which is some 70 miles from where the Chinese drilling vessel is located. For sure, argument between China and Vietnam over these islands goes back a long way – to before French Colonial rule of Vietnam.

But having condemned China’s 1974 over-provoked seizure from South Vietnam of the western group of these islands, it is hard to see how the US can now be neutral.

In any case, the islands have never been permanently inhabited, and in recent decades have only had military garrisons, not any economic activity. The Vietnamese coast is far closer than the nearest inhabited part of China, Hainan island. Thus the Paracels at best make for a weak claim to EEZ rights compared with Vietnam’s central coast.

Indeed, as visitors to the great temple ruins at My Son can attest, a few kilometers southwest of Da Nang, a World Heritage site, this area was for 1,000 years till about 1400 the heartland of the Cham maritime state which -- not the Chinese – ran much of the trade in the South China Sea. But do not imagine that Chinese ever follow any interest but their own.

At the very least, the issue of any overlapping seabed rights ought to be the subject of negotiation – as for example in the case of Thailand and Malaysia -- or reference to independent international arbitration body. But China believes it is above such “indignities” which imply that it is subject to rules or norms created by lesser states and inferior peoples.

US silence in the case of China’s claims to every rock, shoal and fishing right to within a few miles of the Philippines coast is even more an indicator of how far the State Department’s so-called China experts will go to appease Beijing. In the case of the Scarborough shoal, the US falls back on the fact that this features falls just outside the parameters of the Philippines as defined by the Treaty of Paris, which acknowledged Spain’s surrender of the Philippine islands to the US in 1898.

Those boundaries were simply straight lines drawn without serious consideration if only because no one thought about the shoal. But the fact is that it lies well within the Philippines EEZ, 175 km from Luzon but 650 km from China. The Chinese claim is based on the fact that some Chinese fisherman had been there and that there was reference to it in Chinese annals.

The fact that the Malay seafarers had been sailing these sea for 2,000 years is irrelevant to China. Malays are inferior people, according to classic Chinese world view, so they do not count.

The latest China-Philippines encounter shows China in an even worse light. Beijing has protested the arrest of its fishermen on the Half Moon shoal off the southwest coast of Palawan on the grounds that China has fishing rights in this area, 95 km from Philippine land but approximately 1,600 km from China. The Chinese were apparently engaged in despoiling natural resources to feed their greed for supposedly rare and aphrodisiacal delicacies – a haul of giant turtles, an endangered species supposedly protected by an international convention.

Again, the US is silent on China’s fishing rights which Beijing backs with claims of history that are so mendacious that they rival those of such masters of lies and concocted history as Joseph Goebbels and Joseph Stalin.

If anyone other than the Philippines has a claim to this shoal it would be the Sultanate of Brunei which previously controlled southern Palawan, Sabah and the Sulu archipelago. Pre-colonial Chinese presence in the area was never more than a few traders.

The long-term problem for the US, and an even bigger one for its Asian allies in not actively disputing Chinese claims within the nine-dash line, is that China will continue to “create facts” depriving the other littoral states of sea resources and enabling it to expand its naval presence to every island and reef in the sea.

That in turn will make it all the harder for the US and its allies to prevent China from enforcing navigation rights through the sea which will thus become the “Chinese lake” of Beijing’s dreams, making the US and Japan traffic subject to its control and enabling it to establish hegemony over the “lesser breeds,” the 500 million non-Chinese of Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.