Tension Mounts Between Vietnam, China

Posted on July 8, 2012

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HANOI – Vietnam’s new Law on the Sea, passed last week, has sparked a fresh round of tensions with China about competing territory in the South China Sea.

When Vietnam’s National Assembly passed the law on June 21, the reaction from China was immediate and aggressive.

The law states Vietnam’s sovereignty claims of the Spratly and Paracel islands, territory believed to be rich in oil and minerals, and also claimed by its larger neighbor. Beijing says the law is illegal and called in Vietnamese ambassador Nguyen Van Tho to protest.

Analysts have said the move is directed more towards engaging Vietnamese public opinion, rather than stirring ire with China. Last year, hundreds of protesters took to the streets for weeks of rare demonstrations in Vietnam, protesting Chinese aggression against Vietnamese oil exploration vessels.

Nguyen Quang Thach, a resident of Hanoi,  was at the protests last year. He says he welcomes the new law.

“I’m happy with this because we know the demarcation of our sea territory and it’s a good way to send a message to other countries that we have the law and regulations,” he said.

The face-off with China quickly escalated.   The same day Vietnam passed the Law on the Sea, China’s Foreign Ministry announced it had raised the level of governance on three groups of islands in the South China Sea from county to prefectural level, under the control of Sansha city.

The seat of government will be on Woody Island, which is part of the Paracels, an area China took from what was then South Vietnam in 1974.

Sansha city has been in the works for some time, says Jennifer Richmond, China director for the security analysts firm Stratfor, which made it easy to bring up in response to Vietnam’s new law.

“Sansha city is not a new concept. In fact I think they started thinking about this back in the late 50s and 60s.  So what they have done is they had always had a county administrative area,” said Richmond. “What they are trying to do now is make it a prefecture administration with some territorial claim.”

Richmond says the announcement was made in reaction to the new law, but is not directed entirely at Vietnam. Instead, she says it was part of a public relations exercise aimed at the Chinese public as the country gets ready for a leadership transition.

Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to take control from Hu Jintao as head of the Communist party later this year.  In the meantime, the government’s main concern is to remain strong and be seen as unified to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible.  Richmond says the strategy is not unique to China.

“Vietnam, the Philippines and China, particularly Vietnam and China, are masters at doing this. When they’ve got domestic problems that are weighing on them, a lot of times they will create international situations that will take the heat off the state,” she said.

She says there will likely be more skirmishes with China about territory in the sea.  However, Richmond says they will likely be more reactive than proactive.

The announcement of Vietnam’s new law was briskly followed by yet another skirmish.

On Saturday, state-owned China National Offshore Oil, known as CNOOC, invited foreign firms to bid on energy exploration in nine lots off the coast of Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry calls the move illegal and says the lots set aside by China were entirely within Vietnam’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone and contitnental shelf, as laid out in the Untied Nations Law on the Sea.

Richmond says the moves lifted tensions, but remain part of a well-worn pattern of  threats and counter-threats and raises the level of rhetoric even higher.

China’s Not-So-Hard Power Strategy

After more than two months of angry confrontation over Scarborough Shoal, a remote cluster of islets in the South China Sea, China and the Philippines had finally appeared this week to have brought their phony war to a belated conclusion.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs had confirmed, according to Inquirer.net, that all ships from both sides had left the Shoal’s lagoon by June 23. It had earlier looked as though China had turned down a golden opportunity to end the dispute by declining to follow Manila’s lead in using the onset of the typhoon season as a convenient excuse for going home. China still appeared reluctant to confirm officially that it, too, had actually left, however, and by June 28 Manila said it was seeking clarification over reports that some Chinese vessels had returned. Beijing should rethink this latest decision and recall its ships: If it does, it can now look back with some satisfaction on a campaign well managed.

After Scarborough Shoal, Chinese leaders should be more convinced than ever that not-so-hard power is the appropriate solution to maritime disputes like this one. In fact, Beijing had been reported to be so impressed with the way events unfolded – because Chinese interests have been safeguarded without the need for violence – that it is formulating an updated maritime strategy based on the ‘Scarborough Model’. A top-ranking official may even be given oversight of maritime security after the upcoming leadership reshuffle.

Beijing has embraced no-so-hard power because it must walk a delicate line in handling its arguments in the international arena. Deploying the superior forces of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), though arguably justified by the Philippines’ use of a naval frigate, would only have served to condemn Beijing in the court of international opinion as having recklessly upset East Asia’s applecart. Yet a purely diplomatic response would equally have condemned Beijing in the court of domestic opinion, with nationalists demanding nothing less than tough action wherever sovereign pride is at stake.

Fortunately, Beijing has an intermediate option – an increasingly impressive array of not-so-hard power tools in the form of the country’s numerous civilian or paramilitary maritime law enforcement agencies.

The media has tended to overlook the remarkable build-up that these agencies have been undergoing: the PLAN’s new aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines are a lot sexier than humble patrol boats, after all. But the growth of maritime agencies like China Marine Surveillance (CMS), the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) and the Maritime Safety Agency (MSA) – the three organizations that sent ships to Scarborough Shoal – has been much more aggressive than that of China’s navy. According to Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor at the U.S. Navy War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute who has studied China’s white-hull fleets, the expansion of China’s coast guard-like agencies has been “extremely rapid’, while the country’s naval build-up has been “moderate” in comparison.

These agencies have hundreds of vessels between them, most of them small and unarmed. What’s new is the development over the last decade of a core of much larger, more modern ships that are capable of staying at sea for longer, of travelling further, and of carrying helicopters. There are also suggestions that China is planning to lightly arm more of these ships. Traditionally, CMS and FLEC – the two agencies that seem to have been tasked with handling maritime disputes – used unarmed vessels. However, the new FLEC ship that confronted the Philippine Navy was lightly armed with deck-mounted machine guns. There are also unconfirmed suggestions that CMS may begin lightly arming some of its larger ships.

None of this should alarm China’s neighbors: it signals a reassuring intention to keep the PLAN’s powder dry and to manage disputes with civilian ships that are, at most, only lightly armed. This is all part of a new Chinese foreign policy approach of “reactive assertiveness”: the idea is that China doesn’t pick fights, but that if someone picks a fight with China it will offer a forceful response. It has also been called “non-confrontational assertiveness”, and this perhaps is the smarter term because it captures the manner in which China reacts assertively while, as at Scarborough Shoal, still showing significant restraint.

This policy has the senior leadership’s endorsement, just as the decision to use CMS and FLEC ships, rather than military vessels, at Scarborough Shoal must have come from the top, says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Northeast Asia Project Director at the International Crisis Group.

“This is so high-profile now. It’s highly unlikely that these agencies are freelancing because it’s become a major international issue: the government must have approved it,” she says. The appearance of restraint is strengthened by the observation that Beijing didn’t overplay its hand in using the Philippines dispute as a convenient distraction from the political circus surrounding Bo Xilai. Admittedly, the media and some government figures attacked Manila verbally, and extracted some propaganda value from the Scarborough incident; but at the scene of the dispute China’s response remained measured.

Some Chinese nationalists remain unimpressed by the application of not-so-hard power. The decision to send fisheries enforcement vessels and unarmed surveillance ships instead of an overwhelmingly powerful naval flotilla was weak, they felt, and the move drew harsh criticism from hawkish netizens. Similarly, when Vietnam passed a new Maritime Law last week in which it reaffirmed its claims to the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands, some Weibo users turned their virtual fire not on Hanoi but on Beijing, accusing China’s leaders of encouraging Vietnamese boldness through their kid-gloves treatment of the Philippines.

Beijing is painfully aware that, while these people might be extreme in their views, they can’t be ignored: in fact, the regime’s survival is dependent on its keeping on the right side of Han nationalism. In the end, Beijing did enough at Scarborough Shoal. They safeguarded China’s dignity, by not ceding territory and by preventing the arrest of its fishermen. Only Weibo’s wackiest fringe could have really demanded war.

However, the countries that dispute territories with China should be under no illusions that while Beijing’s preference is for not-so-hard power, the hard power of the PLAN remains a viable policy option from China’s perspective. By deploying a military ship to Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines made a serious tactical blunder: it came close to forcing China to abandon its new model and opt for a military solution. Similar miscalculations in future could provoke a hard-power response.

Encounters of the kind that has just concluded safely, after two months of tension, are only going to become more and more frequent in the overfished South China Sea; and as the region’s fishermen grow ever angrier, as they find their living increasingly difficult to come by, those encounters will unavoidably become potential flashpoints.

By adopting the Scarborough Model and expanding its white-hull fleet, China deserves credit for furnishing itself with a toolkit with which to deal with these disputes forcefully, but non-militarily. That reduces the likelihood of conflict. But at the same time, the countries confronting China at sea must remember that the nationalistic gallery that Beijing plays to has no love for not-so-hard power solutions. They must not give China cause to abandon them.

Roiling the waters

JUST as South-East Asian countries were heaving a sigh of relief that China and the Philippines appeared to be drawing back from confrontation in the South China Sea, new tension has arisen between China and Vietnam in the same stretch of ocean. In recent days the two countries stepped up their sparring over archipelagoes and oil rights nearby, even dropping hints of military resolve to back their rival claims. Few predict imminent conflict, but a revival of old animosities between China and Vietnam could yet open huge rifts within the region.

The easing of weeks-long tensions between China and the Philippines last month appeared to signal that both countries saw too much to lose in continuing their high-profile spat over ownership of the Scarborough Shoal (see map). For all that it enjoys American support, the Philippines knew it would probably be badly bruised in any military showdown. China, despite its fulminations, appeared to worry that a show of force risked damaging its image and causing South-East Asian countries to turn even more to America for security. The Philippines said it withdrew its two government ships from the shoal on June 15th, citing bad weather. Chinese boats reportedly followed suit, though it is not clear how completely.

But the calm was brief. On June 21st Vietnam’s parliament passed a maritime law that reasserted the country’s claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands. China called this a “serious violation” of its sovereignty. It responded by declaring that a county-level government which supposedly governs the two archipelagoes and much of the rest of the South China Sea from one of the Paracel Islands, had been upgraded to the administrative level of a prefecture. Chinese media described this notional jurisdiction, Sansha, as by far the biggest prefecture in the country (though its population of a few hundred people is heavily outnumbered by gulls and its ill-defined territory is mostly water). Some Chinese internet users speculated excitedly about who might be appointed mayor, but reports on some websites that a 45-year-old hydrologist had got the job were later dismissed as a spoof.

Tensions rose further with an announcement late last month by CNOOC, a Chinese state-owned oil company, that it was opening nine blocks in what China calls the South Sea to international bids for oil and gas exploration. These reach to within 37 nautical miles (68km) of Vietnam’s coast, according to PetroVietnam, a Vietnamese state-owned oil firm. Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales says CNOOC’s move was probably a “political stunt” in response to Vietnam’s new law, about which China had long been expressing concerns. Mr Thayer says that, given the disputes, China’s offer will get a cool reception from oil firms.

Worryingly, however, both countries have been sending stronger signals that they might defend their claims with force. China’s defence ministry said on June 28th that it had launched “combat-ready” patrols in the South China Sea. Earlier Vietnam stated that it was conducting regular air patrols over the Spratlys. Some of this may be dressing up of routine activity. But China fought more recently with Vietnam than with any other country. Their last big skirmish, a naval encounter in the Spratlys in 1988, left over 70 Vietnamese dead. Relations have improved greatly since, but mutual wariness persists. Vietnam, then a Soviet ally, has to China’s chagrin recently forged military links with America.

Neither side wants this to escalate. Chinese diplomats have been trying to project a more accommodating image since a bout of chest-thumping over the South China Sea in 2009 and 2010 which heightened anxieties in the region and damaged China’s efforts to project its rise as peaceful. In mid-July South-East Asian foreign ministers, as well as America’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, will discuss regional security in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. China does not want the kind of confrontation this time around that it endured at a similar gathering two years ago, when Mrs Clinton asserted that the sea was America’s national interest, rallying China’s regional rivals over the issue.

Popular nationalism is a wild card. On July 1st hundreds of people joined rare protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City against China’s assertion of claims to the Spratlys and Paracels. Vietnam, like China, is normally intolerant of public demonstrations, but police did little to intervene.

In China Global Times, a newspaper that champions nationalist causes, used an editorial on July 4th to lash out against both Vietnam and the Philippines (which had transgressed again by saying on July 2nd that it might ask America to deploy spy planes in disputed areas). The newspaper said China should respond cautiously, but that both countries deserved punishment. It also warned that if they went to “extremes in their provocations”, this might involve military strikes.

Chinese leaders do not want a burst of nationalist sentiment that might backfire should they fail to satisfy popular demands. But uncertainty abounds as China prepares for big changes in its civilian and military leadership in the autumn. Contenders for power do not want to appear weak. As Global Times growled, “If these island disputes had happened in imperial times, they would have been handled in a much easier way.”

Hardened lines in the South China Sea

HANOI – Tit-for-tat moves by China and Vietnam represent the latest indication that tensions could break into conflict over contested and potentially resource rich maritime areas in the South China Sea.

Hanoi’s National Assembly late last month overwhelmingly passed a law that effectively declared sovereignty over areas of the Spratly and Paracel Islands, including territories claimed by China. The law will come into force at the beginning of next year, leaving unclear how Hanoi plans to fortify its claim in what it refers to as the East Vietnam Sea.

The decision came in the wake of the publication of a short essay entitled “Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa [Paracel] and Truong Sa [Spratly] Archipelagos” by the National Political Publishing House, which gave historical evidence in support of Vietnam’s claims.

In a prompt reaction, Chinese authorities established Sansha, a prefectural-level city that administers the three disputed island groups of Nansha (Spratly Islands), Xisha (Paracel Islands), and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank). The new “city” also covers the three island groups’ surrounding waters.

One day after Vietnam’s legislature passed the law, the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislature, urged Hanoi to “correct” the legislation. Beijing also summoned to Vietnam’s ambassador to China, with whom authorities lodged a formal protest.

Upping the ante, Beijing’s national energy giant China National Offshore Oil Corp announced it was offering new oil-exploration blocks to international companies within Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Vietnamese officials protested the move as “illegal” and called on Beijing to cancel the auctions.

According to some independent observers, the latest dispute was triggered by the presence in the region of a US Navy research vessel, the Roger Revelle, which docked at Tien Sa Port in Vietnam’s central Danang city on June 22. The ship’s ostensible mission was a bilateral cooperative program on oceanic research in the South China Sea, but Beijing apparently viewed the vessel’s presence as a provocation.

Eight months since the conclusion of the Bali East Asia Summit (EAS), where rival claimants to the South China Sea exchanged conciliatory messages and hinted at the beginnings of an agreement that would allow for joint exploitation of resources, the region is now bracing for potential armed conflict over the territories. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the area in question contains anywhere between 28 billion and 213 billion barrels of oil.

Those concerns were heightened during the recent two-month standoff between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, another contested territory in the Spratlys. While the standoff ended without armed incident, Manila’s decision to open a kindergarten school in another contested area of the archipelago threatens to reignite tensions.

In light of China’s perceived rising assertiveness, the Philippines and Vietnam have recently strengthened strategic relations with Beijing’s traditional regional competitors, including most prominently the US. This approach, while not excluding commercial and trade dialogue with Beijing, has not improved the EAS’s proposed constructive dialogue among the claimants, which also include Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.

The decision of the two Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) neighbors – the Philippines and Vietnam – to strengthen their bilateral security ties in an apparent bid to counter China’s rising naval power has been reinforced by US eagerness to secure free navigation in what it has referred to as the “maritime crossroads” of the Asia-Pacific region.

Deepening dispute
However, sovereignty disputes over the islands and the rights to resources in the surrounding waters “do not appear to pose any credible threat to the freedoms of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea,” wrote Robert Beckman, director of the Center for International Law at the National University of Singapore, in a recent paper entitled “Geopolitics, International Law and the South China Sea”.

While freedom of navigation does not appear to be threatened – apart from fishing vessels blocked in turns by the Chinese, Vietnamese or Philippine navies – the three countries now do not miss an opportunity to assert their respective rights in the contested area.

Some now fear all diplomatic efforts and department-level working groups dealing with the disputed areas could collapse in the wake of the recent Scarborough Shoal standoff and the tit-for-tat legislative exchanges between China and Vietnam.

On the one hand, China stated in diplomatic notes to the United Nations in May 2009 that it had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands and their “adjacent waters” and that it had “sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over the “surrounding waters”.

On the other hand, as stated by Beckman, “Vietnam and the Philippines are of the view that they have the right under international law to undertake unilateral actions to explore for hydrocarbons in concession blocks in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in areas which they believe are not in dispute because they are too far from any disputed island.”

Beckman also notes that even though a state occupies an island it “does not necessarily give it a superior title under international law if other states have objected to the occupation”.

Washington’s recent military overtures towards Hanoi and the sale of a second warship to the Philippine navy, albeit without sophisticated weapons and communication systems, is by some reckoning raising tensions. Some feel Washington’s rule-by-law stand would be more credible if the US Senate ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); the State Department and Barack Obama administration support the convention.

Meanwhile, China’s sometimes erratic position is influenced by internal conflicts, as outlined in a recent report by the International Crisis Group “Stirring up the South China Sea”. The report notes that “Any future solution to the South China Sea disputes will require a consistent policy from China executed uniformly throughout the different levels of government along with the authority to enforce it.”

That could be a long time coming, according to analysts. Beckman suggests that China’s perceived national interests and maritime security policy will not change until it becomes a legitimate naval power and has “the same interests in freedoms of the seas as other naval powers”.

Until then, China’s policy will remain hostage to the likes of Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, director of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) Information Expert Committee. He recently stated his belief that Chinese troops should engage Philippine ships and fishermen who go near the disputed Scarborough shoal. Such rhetoric will push all claimants to reinforce their positions and raise the potential for armed confrontation.

Roberto Tofani

China deploys military command in South China Sea

China has made its presence felt around a disputed landmass in the South China Sea by deploying combat-ready patrols, triggering speculations that the country may be hatching a plot to set up military base in the region.

In a statement issued on Thursday, Defence Ministry spokesperson Geng Yansheng said Beijing would strongly “oppose any military provocative behaviour” in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands that are locked in dispute with Vietnam among other states.

China’s Defence Ministry in its monthly briefing claimed that the patrolling was necessary to “protect national sovereignty and (their) security and development interests”.

“The Chinese military’s resolve and will to defend territorial sovereignty and protect our maritime rights and interests is firm and unshakeable,”  Geng Yansheng added.

It may be noted that China shares a longstanding history of military aggression with Vietnam and the Philippines over a number of islands that are dotted across the South China Sea. Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia are also in a state of dispute with China over the same matter.

The State Council’s approval of the city of Sansha last week fuelled speculations that Beijing might be eyeing the resource-rich area for its own benefit. Sansha is to be built as a prefectural-level urban settlement around the waters of the Spratly Islands.

“Now China has taken a concrete step, signaling its determination to administer the Nansha Islands and related sea areas. The new level of management carries more weight than the law of Vietnam”, said one of the leading English-language newspapers in the country.

Vietnam envisages greater role for India in solving South China Sea dispute

Hanoi, July 7 (ANI): Vietnamese Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nguyen Van Thao has hoped that India would echo a strong voice in the region to help Vietnam resolve the South China Sea dispute peacefully and as per international laws.

China is involved in long-running disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines about ownership of the South China Sea and its myriad, mostly uninhabited, islands and atolls. Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims.

Speaking to mediapersons in Hanoi on Friday, Nguyen Van Thao thanked the Indian Government for supporting the peaceful dialogue process, initiated by the Vietnamese government, to resolve this dispute.

“On this occasions and on this matter we would like to thank the (Indian) government for your agreement with the ways that we handle the dispute in South China sea, which is through diplomatic channels, through peaceful dialogues, through peaceful measures and most importantly, based on the international and legal documents and law,” said Nguyen Van Thao.

Thao also claimed that all the moves made by China on the issue was in violation of international laws because the areas under dispute belonged to the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam, around 200 nautical miles from Vietnam’s territory.

Vietnam maintains that it wishes to resolve the dispute within parameters of international laws and on the basis of legal documents.

Earlier, the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam, Ranjit Rae said that India dealt with countries on the basis of bilateral issues separately and advertised the peace dialogue undertaken to resolve the South China Sea dispute.

“As far as the territorial disputes of different countries in this area are concerned, we believe that this dispute should be resolved by these countries through peaceful dialogue and it should be resolved as per the norms of the International law,” said Rae.

He however conceded that India had a huge energy requirement with its growing economy growth and had hence signed an agreement with Vietnam to not only explore but also producing blocks of gas in from the sea.

“Even our companies are active in the South China Sea and its like they have come just yesterday, our companies have been active from late 1980’s. Not only in exploration, they are active in producing blocks of gas as well. In October last year an agreement was signed between ONGC International limited and Petro Vietnam, when the honourable President of Vietnam visited India that agreement was signed. According to that agreement both companies will increase cooperation not only in Vietnam but also other countries,” Rae added.

The South China Sea issue has picked up momentum ahead of ASEAN Summit scheduled to begin in Combodia later this week.

The South China Sea is potentially the biggest flashpoint for confrontation in Asia, and tensions have risen since the United States adopted a policy last year to reinforce its influence in the region. (ANI)

South China Sea dispute to dominate Asian security meet

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Efforts to ease tensions in the South China Sea will dominate this week’s Asian security dialogue in Cambodia, analysts say, while the US will be at pains to stress it seeks cooperation with China.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joins the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh on Thursday, a few days after foreign ministers from across Southeast Asia open proceedings, with counterparts from China, Japan, the Koreas and Australia also set to attend.

Friction over competing claims in the South China Sea promises to be the hot button issue as the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) holds talks on Monday, July 9, — before opening meetings to include all 27 invited countries.

The Philippines is leading a push for ASEAN to unite to persuade China to accept a “code of conduct” (COC) in the sea, where tensions have flared recently with both Vietnam and the Philippines accusing Beijing of aggressive behavior.

China prefers to deal with the claimants individually as it seeks to extend its writ over the resource-rich and strategically important area.

“This is make or break time for ASEAN members,” said Carl Thayer, a politics professor and Southeast Asia securities expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“They have set this month as their self-imposed deadline to come up with a draft COC. There could be progress.”

China, Taiwan and ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, home to vital shipping lanes and believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.

China recently angered Vietnam by inviting bids for exploration of oil blocks in contested waters, sparking protests in Hanoi earlier this month, while Beijing and Manila are locked in a tense standoff over a disputed shoal.

At their last summit in April, ASEAN countries were divided over when to include Beijing in discussions about the draft code of conduct, leading to a “big disagreement”, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said at the time.

But the bloc is still hoping to reach an agreement with China by the end of the year, 10 years after first committing to creating a legally binding framework for resolving disputes.

US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, said late last month he saw momentum on the issue after noticing “an increase in diplomacy” between ASEAN and China on a potential code of conduct.

The US recently expanded military relations with the Philippines and Vietnam, and the strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing will be “the elephant in the room” this week, according to Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Amid concerns that the US’s renewed focus on Asia could antagonise China ahead of a leadership transition this year, Clinton is expected “to downplay US-China friction”, Bower said.

Instead, she will “be at pains to advance US-China cooperation as a main foreign policy objective”, agreed Thayer.

With that in mind, Clinton may be less outspoken on the South China Sea issue than she was at a regional summit in 2010, when she angered Beijing by saying the US had a “national interest” in open access to the sea.

“Don’t look for fireworks from Secretary Clinton in Phnom Penh,” said Bower.

“Look for quiet strength, behind the scenes support for ASEAN positions… but nothing overt or muscle-heavy from the United States.”

Clinton will also want to reassure Asian counterparts that the US is committed to the region and is not just seeking to counter China.

“Secretary Clinton will endeavor to advance a raft of proposals to underscore that the US has much broader interests in Southeast Asian than military rebalancing,” said Thayer.

Her efforts will start even before she arrives in Cambodia, with a quick visit to Hanoi, where she will meet with US and Vietnamese business representatives, and a stop-off in Laos, where she will become the first top US diplomat to visit the communist-run country in 57 years.

After the security forum concludes, Clinton will lead a large US delegation to a business forum in Cambodia’s tourist hub of Siem Reap on Friday.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — a grouping of nearly 600 million people from disparate economic and political systems.

The bloc has often been dismissed as a talking shop but it has assumed new strategic importance in light of Washington’s foreign policy “pivot” to Asia and the economic rise of China in recent years. – Agence France-Presse

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