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Avoiding a Tempest in the South China Sea

by Joshua Kurlantzick
September 2, 2010

Two Chinese trawlers stop directly in front of the military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in South China Sea

Over the past two months, the South China Sea, which always has the potential to be a flashpoint between China and nations in Southeast Asia, has indeed become a flashpoint – between China and the United States. Yet the tensions over the sea are more than a short term problem. Resolving the competing claims in the South China Sea will be a critical test of China’s emerging power and its ability to deal with its neighbors, as well as the United States’ ability to work with Southeast Asian states to manage China’s rise.

See my new expert brief on the South China Sea here.

(Photo: Ho New/courtesy Reuters)

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by RousseauC

    Don’t treat China like a student, give China time and see how it is going to have more wisdom to solve the issue. Most people thought that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan were going to war, but wisdom by CPC and KMT leaders resolved the issue and the cross-Straits relations are better than ever…

    If the US can claim national interest in the South China Sea, why making a fuss for the area to be a core interest to China? It’s South China Sea, not Gulf of Mexico.

    The US meddling will only make things worse. Some ASEAN countries need US to counterbalance China on the issue, not because they love the US. That is the difference. Also since when the US is a friend of the Viet Nam, a socialist country ruled by the Communist party. It is just an utilitarian relationship.

    The US might be good intentioned in some cases, but it just does not understand the mentality of Asians.

    Yes. The US presence in Asia is 60-years-old. But what the US should realize that China’s rise means that the US won’t be the only superpower in the world. The US’s role as a moral leader has been great hurt by its unilaterally invasion of Iraq.

    Blaming everything to the Chinese and claiming that the US has done nothing wrong is no difference to the government propaganda.

  • Posted by David Brown

    Yesterday I sent in a response to the Kurlantzick essay, by email to I’m wondering if it got lost. Here it is again:

    Joshua Kurlantzick proposes that the US, China and key Southeast Asian nations ‘quietly agree to tamp down rhetoric over the South China Sea, keep it off the agenda of regional meetings in the near term, and utilize two-track diplomacy to explore durable solutions.’

    That was, of course, also the plan in 2002, in the early years of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ campaign, when China and the ASEAN nations signed a ‘Declaration of Conduct’ commiting all to seek a peaceful solution to rival territorial claims. Since then, and not just in the last year, as Mr. Kurlantzick suggests, Beijing has followed a ‘talk and take’ strategy, expanding its presence on the atolls of the disputed sea area and presuming to police the area’s fishing grounds while trying to cut bilateral deals with various of the ASEANs.

    Taking the problem off the agenda of regional meetings in such circumstances is appeasement. Ms. Clinton was right to join the ASEAN states in putting China on notice. The next step ought to be an intra-ASEAN sorting out of overlapping territorial claims. That could establish for them a solid foundation on which to deal collectively with China and its preposterous assertion of ‘incontrovertible’ historical right.

    David Brown, Hanoi

  • Posted by Mr Termsak Chalermpalanupap

    A great deal of confusion has been created in the Western mass media following the discussion on the South China Sea (SCS) at the 17th ARF in Ha Noi on 23 July 2010.

    I accompanied the ASEAN Secretary-General (Dr Surin Pitsuwan) who attended the “retreat” of the ARF Ministers and took careful notes of what was said.

    Secretary Clintin did say the following (all of which is nothing unusual) : the sovereignty disputes must be resolved peacefully; freedom of navigation in SCS must be upheld; U.S. national interest to have free access to maritime commons in SCS; international concern about maritime security in SCS; the U.S. supports collaborative and diplomatic efforts to resolve territorial disputes; the U.S. opposes the threat of use of force; the U.S. doesn’t take side with any claimants; claimants should pursue their sovereign claims in accordance with UNCLOS; the U.S. supports the ASEAN-China DOC of 2002 and encourage the two parties to reach an agreement on the Code of Conduct soon; in the meantime, the U.S. is prepared to support CBM measures under the DOC, which the U.S. believes will create conditions conducive to peaceful resolution of the sovereignty disputes; the Obama Administration has submitted UNCLOS to the U.S. Senate, and it is a diplomatic priority for the Obama Administration next year to security the ratification of UNCLOS.

    In my opinion, there are five saparate SCS issues that should not be mixed up.
    1. the dispute between Viet Nam and China over the Paracels;(both sides seem to want to try to settle this issue through bilateral means)
    2. the dispute among Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Viet Nam, China (backed by Taiwan) over the Spratlys; (the preference is still bilateral talks with China)
    3. the DOC; (ASEAN is consulting China on how to start implement this 2002 agreement to build confidence in SCS through joint projects)
    4. the overlapping claims of 200-mile EEZ and extended continental shelves; (being handled in the COmmission on Limits of Continental Shelves under UNCLOS);
    5. the freedom of navigation, safety of overflight and related maritime security concerns in disputes areas of SCS

    I believe new multilateral approach can only work in the fifth issue.

    My article explaining the above five issues has been published in The Nation (in Bangkok) on 3 and 4 September 2010.

  • Posted by Joe Chanakis

    The wisdom by CPC and KMT leaders has NOT ‘resolved’ the issue between Taiwan and China,and the cross-Straits relations are NOT better than ever. Taiwan’s president Ma
    only bowed to China’s lure and plots to
    achieve makeshift and seemingly peace.
    I would say that it is sheer USA military power that has held back China from invading Taiwan for over 6 decades.
    Following FACTS should be your reminders:
    1)Many polls showed that over 70% Taiwanese want NO unification with China, and only less than 10% favored an immediate unification with ‘Communist’ China.
    2)Most of Southeastern Asian countries prefer that USA continues to keep its presence in Asia to check and counterbalance China at all times.
    This common wish is self-explanatory enough.

  • Posted by greg

    A couple of myths need to be dismissed.

    First, the competing claims on South China Sea are not between China and ASEAN. There are ten countries in ASEAN, only four of them have made the claims: Vietnam, Philippine, Malaysia and Brunei.

    Second, these competing claims are not just between China AND other four countries. These other countries’ claims are also against each other in some case.

    Thirdly, there is NO “freedom of passage” issue as the US claimed. Nobody threatens the freedom of passage.

    Finally, while ASEAN countries do not want to see any one country dominate the South China Sea, they’re not aligning themselves with the US against China. Please don’t interpret and speak for them. Recently, the foreign minister of Philippine said Philippine does not want the US to get involve in the South China Sea disputes, and the Vice Minister of Defense of Vietnam while visiting China recently, specifically said that Vietnam will never be a military ally with the US, let alone against China.

  • Posted by Wai L. Chui

    I completely agree with Greg. It is in the fundamental interest of South East Asian countries to see the influence of one great power (China) offset by the influence of another great power (United States). That way they do not have to negotiate under serious disadvantage. But they will never align with either power.

    The top priority for ASEAN countries is their own interest. Any wish that they will allign with the United States against China is a fantasy.

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