Some issues at play in South China Sea
The U.S. failed to win public endorsement from Southeast Asian regional powers in its faceoff with China over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Here’s a quick look at the issues at play and their significance for U.S. military moves in the strategic area:
Defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam — met this week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, along with defense chiefs of the U.S., China, Japan and other countries.
The U.S. and the Japanese wanted the meeting to issue a statement affirming their commitment to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which Washington believes is threatened by China’s construction of man-made islands. The participants could not agree on a public statement, in large part due to pressure from China.
Why couldn’t all the countries agree?
Although there is concern about China’s moves — especially in the Philippines and Vietnam, which have their own claims to territorial waters in the area — several of the countries are reluctant to stand up to Beijing. ASEAN countries have not publicly explained their position on the issue.
Some of them, notably Myanmar and Laos, have economic and political ties to Beijing and are reluctant to anger China, especially when they have no territorial claims of their own in the South China Sea.
ASEAN members value a policy of consensus decisions and noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, making it reluctant to pressure recalcitrant members.
What’s at stake?
An estimated 30 percent of the world’s trade transits the South China Sea, and conflict over freedom of navigation could spread quickly, threatening the economies of all countries in the region.
On the other hand, the U.S., Japan and other countries believe that bowing to Beijing’s territorial claims threaten freedom of the seas at a time when China is trying to play a more active role in regional security.
The unspoken fear is that China’s long-term goal is to supplant the U.S. as the dominant power in Asia, with major implication for pro-Western governments in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
What are the next moves?
The U.S. sent a Navy warship, the USS Lassen, into China’s self-declared control zone around one reef on Oct. 27, and has indicated it will continue to do so. China has warned strongly that it will do what is necessary to defend its claims.
Neither country wants armed conflict but has shown no inclination to soften its position. The two countries will likely accelerate diplomatic efforts to deal with the standoff, while the U.S. will probably work with its partners in the region to encourage more public support.