Navy backs Clinton diplomacy

August 11, 2010

William R. Hawkins

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sparked strong Chinese protests when she told month’s meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that America has “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” Beijing likes to claim the entire area as a “territorial sea.” Vietnamese, Philippine and Malaysian officials had voiced their concerns to the U.S. about China’s claims to places like the Paracel and Spratley islands, ownership of which confers oil and mineral rights in the adjacent seabeds. The South China Sea is also the principle trade route for the nations of the Pacific Rim.
Global Times, a publication of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, argued Aug. 10,

The US is returning to Southeast Asia with a clear political agenda. It is trying to expand US influence and strengthen cooperation with countries in the region, but seeds of distrust are also being planted with its attempt to contain China. Countries around the region must see these tactics for what they are.

Yet, the editorial also noted, “Quickly after the US stated that the South China Sea is of US national interest, Vietnam began intensifying its protest against China’s legitimate activities in the disputed waters.” The party newspaper asserted, “Traditionally, China was the central power broker in the region, backed by its cultural influence and advanced productivity.” One might also add military power. The week after Clinton’s remarks in Hanoi, Beijing held a major sea and air exercise in the South China Sea. On Aug. 8, theForeign Ministry stated, “China firmly opposes any remarks and actions that violate its sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and the adjacent waters.”
The question was whether President Barack Obama would back his Secretary of State, who is known to favor a more active policy than he does. In the face of strong Chinese protests against holding joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercises as a show of force against North Korea, the maneuvers were limited to the Sea of Japan and stayed out of the Yellow Sea which Beijing also claims are territorial waters.
The answer came this last weekend, as the Strike Group led by the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington sailed through the South China Sea to the waters off the Vietnamese coast. A delegation of Vietnamese military and government officials were invited aboard the carrier. The guided missile destroyer John S. McCain docked at Danang, the main U.S. Marine base during the Vietnam War. The U.S. and Vietnam navies then conducted joint drills. The message to Beijing could not have been more clear.
And to give China something else to worry about, last Thursday the Pentagon said “the USS George Washington will exercise in the Yellow Sea” as part of a future joint exercises with South Korea. A month ago, Defense officials would not even mention the Yellow Sea by name. Beijing again protested any deployment of a carrier group off the western coast of Korea. But as an Aug. 5 Global Times editorial admitted, “China has fewer means to counter the US than the US can use against China.”