Category Archives: South China Seas

On the Rocks: China’s expected response to tribunal decision threatens to undo soft power gains

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The Permanent Court of Arbitration is set to rule tomorrow on a case brought by the Philippine government over China’s attempts to claim almost the entire South China Sea as sovereign territory. Beijing has boycotted the tribunal and betting the odds are that the verdict will not be in China’s favor.

Whatever happens tomorrow at the tribunal, Chinese state media is going to claim victory. But within the walls of Zhongnanhai, there ought to be some soul searching. This assumes of course that anyone who works in Zhongnanhai still has something approaching a soul.

Should the tribunal rules against the PRC — as it is expected to — and if the Chinese government chooses to use the tribunal’s ruling to, for example, wipe the ass of the nearest stray dog — as they will almost certainly want to do — the repercussions will ripple far past the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea.

Internationally, China has worked hard over the previous two decades to present itself as a good global citizen. As the US and their allies engaging in what many around the world see as reckless military adventurism, China positioned itself as a semi-sane alternative to the failed — and sometimes disastrous — policies of the West.

Choosing to ignore the tribunal’s ruling jeopardizes this concerted effort at image building. China can point all it wants to the way the US especially routinely ignores these sorts of hearings and decisions, but if the Chinese government is serious about being the voice of reason in a world gone mad they have to better than the US. Caesar’s wife must be above reproach. “You did it first” isn’t going to fly.

The second issue is domestic. Chinese media routinely demonizes the United States and the West for their actions around the world. Implicit in this coverage is the idea that most of the world — those countries who don’t burn summer palaces and invade Middle Eastern nations for sport — see China as the good guy in world affairs.

The Chinese government wants to present every issue as China (and by extension, the rest of the world) versus the West. It’s the US and their allies who are the odd ones out in the world. In some ways, that might be true. But it doesn’t mean that China’s neighbors see China as any less of the threat.

In the case of the South China Sea, Beijing is opposed by countries, like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, who ought, by virtue of geography and a shared history as victims of colonialism, have common cause with China.

One reason the Chinese government has been so insistent on the US being the real impetus behind the decision to take the South China Sea case before the tribunal is that it helps soften an awkward truth: China isn’t as beloved around the world — and particularly in asia — as the Chinese state media wants people to believe.

Talking with folks in Beijing, there is the persistent belief that the Philippines and the other countries opposed to China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea are being hoodwinked into becoming the pawns of the usual suspects: The United States and Japan.

The Chinese government has made the South China Sea a core strategic interest. But one wonders if Chinese leaders have thought through the downfield implications of digging in on this issues. Maybe they have and have decided that they are fresh out of fucks to give about what Vietnam thinks of them.

The callous cynic in me might suggest that while China’s actions in the South China Sea represent a challenge to America’s leadership and strategic position in the Western Pacific, Beijing’s refusal to accept the tribunal’s decision could be seen as an opportunity to undermine some of the gains China has made in global public opinion over the past two decades.

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Not a Repeat, but an Echo: ASEAN’s Retracted Statement and the Specter of the 2012 Joint Communique Failure

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and ASEAN foreign ministers at special foreign ministers' meeting in Kunming / AFP PHOTO

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and ASEAN foreign ministers at the special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Kunming / AFP PHOTO

The South China Sea was anticipated to be one major topic of discussion during the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming on June 14, but the outcome—the retraction of an ASEAN statement only three hours after being sent to the media—has made divisions over the South China Sea the only talking point emerging from the meeting on broader ASEAN-China bilateral relations. The statement was stronger than most previous commentary from ASEAN, including specific references to land reclamation and an implied reference to the Philippines’ ongoing legal case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The statement also notably confirmed that the issue is relevant to ASEAN-China bilateral relations, countering the long-time stance of China that South China Sea disputes are a bilateral issue between claimants. Since the retraction, there have been a plethora of contradictory statements and no revised statement has been released.

While divisions over the South China Sea are not new to ASEAN, the lack of a coordinated response raises serious questions about ASEAN’s ability to effectively respond as tensions over the South China Sea continue to rise. The emergence of numerous reports that consensus on the statement was withdrawn after-the-fact due to China pressuring Laos appears to many observers a repeat of ASEAN’s failure in 2012 to reach consensus on a joint statement during the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s failure to cajole consensus from the group in 2012 was also due to disagreement over how to handle the South China Sea disputes, the first time that such a thing happened in ASEAN’s then 45-year history. The failure was blamed squarely on Cambodia’s for allowing its close relationship with China to challenge ASEAN centrality and interfere with ASEAN policy decisions. The question moving forward is whether this will be a repeat of 2012’s failed joint communique or whether Laos as ASEAN Chair for 2016 will be able to successfully coordinate a joint statement from this year’s ASEAN Summit.

The differences in China and ASEAN’s characterizations of the meeting are stark. Where China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi noted in his public remarks that “this [the South China Sea dispute] isn’t an issue between China and ASEAN” and emphasized that there had been few disagreements, the ASEAN statement was clear that “[ASEAN] also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.” Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting in Kunming, failed to appear alongside Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a planned press release in Kunming and instead echoed the retracted statement’s language in a separate press release in Singapore. On June 16, spokespeople for Indonesia and Vietnam stated that there had been consensus over the contents, though Indonesia noted that the statement was intended to be a media guidance statement rather than an official joint statement. The Philippines seconded that there had been consensus among ASEAN foreign ministers when their meeting ended and that Malaysia’s release of the statement had not been in error.

Like Cambodia and Myanmar, Laos is a least-developed country and is considered one of the region’s most vulnerable to Chinese pressures over the South China Sea given its non-claimant status and relative economic dependence on Chinese investment, trade, and loans. And unlike Myanmar, Laos has not recently received an influx of economic assistance from other countries that provide it with development alternatives if China’s assistance were taken away due to political disagreements.

At first glance, it seems that China has “won” by once again disrupting a unified ASEAN statement on the South China Sea. Prashanth Parameswaran’s excellent Diplomat piece on the fiasco correctly questions this conclusion, pointing out that the statement’s release and the following media frenzy show that China successfully blocked an official statement but failed to establish its preferred narrative framework for debate on the issue. Blocking a unified ASEAN statement is not as ideal for China as preventing ASEAN from forming a consensus in the first place, but it may be good enough to prevent action on the issue for the rest of Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship.

After all, China’s activities in the South China Sea are only partly about changing the short-term narrative; the more central goal is to slowly alter the status-quo in China’s favor. This is visible in China’s establishment of military bases on created islands and regular presence of its Coast Guard vessels in the region, which change the on-the-ground calculus and make it increasingly hard for other claimants to push back against Chinese intrusions.

This episode has shown us two things: first, that China’s aggressive behavior has in fact pushed countries in the region that previously preferred to stay away from conflict, such as Singapore and Indonesia, to take a stronger stance against disruptive behavior and in favor of international law. Second, that China is still fully capable and willing to use its role as a regional financier, trading partner, and neighboring behemoth to ensure that the ASEAN bloc cannot effectively act against its interests even in the face of growing regional discomfort over China’s behavior.

The most important question moving forward is not which side has “won” or “lost” in this round of discussion over the South China Sea, but what will happen during the latter half of Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship in 2016.

Prior to this incident, indications were that Laos would follow the steps of Malaysia (Chair in 2015) and Myanmar (Chair in 2014) in balancing between meeting Chinese pressures to avoid the issue and meeting pressures inside ASEAN from other claimant states to address it. Laos Prime Minister Thammavong indicated to US Secretary John Kerry in January 2016 that he sought a unified ASEAN stance and would seek to counter Chinese militarization and assertiveness on the South China Sea issues.

Earlier ASEAN statements expressed concerns over recent developments on the South China Sea issues without being overly specific. The outcome of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit—while failing to specify concerns over China’s activities—hinted at China’s role by highlighting the principle of ASEAN centrality and the need for countries to respect diplomatic processes in the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. China’s announcement in April 2016 that it had reached consensus with Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei, while criticized due to Laos’ role as ASEAN Chair, was ultimately not a great departure from Laos’ previous statements on the issue.

Laos has many motivations to balance between ASEAN and China: for one, Laos’ recent leadership transition led to the ouster of leaders viewed as particularly pro-China, likely linked to numerous investment deals with China that are now recognized as having few benefits for the country as a whole. The installation of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, who is considered to be relatively pro-Vietnam, opens the door to a foreign policy that will better balance China’s influence. Second, there is significant pressure from other ASEAN claimants to avoid giving China’s position too much deference. Cambodia’s failure in 2012 reinforced outside views of the organization as a talk-shop unable to stand up to pressure from China and raised serious questions about the region’s real commitment to ASEAN Centrality.

Despite being (by most measures) less developed than Laos and having only recently emerged from being a regional pariah, Myanmar was fairly successful at maintaining the balance during in its 2015 Chairmanship. For Lao elites’ who are seeking to graduate beyond the label of a least-developed country and who are eager to avoid being viewed as less capable than their neighbors, Myanmar’s success poses an additional motivation for Laos to avoid a similar failure.

Based on the ire poured on Cambodia after its 2012 failure to get a joint communique, it is likely that the emerging debate over the retracted media guidance statement will only add to the pressure on Laos to ensure that there is a joint communique from the ASEAN Summit later this year. By flexing its muscles to force a retraction after the Special Meeting and raising the specter of its influence over individual ASEAN states, China may well have primed other ASEAN members to spend more time and diplomatic capital fighting for the inclusion of something similar in the ASEAN joint statement later this year.

The recent statement fiasco raises questions about how effectively Laos can stand up to pressure from China, but the leadership transition means that greater engagement from Vietnam and other ASEAN countries on controversial issues ahead of time may be welcome. China may have attained its goal to dissuade a joint ASEAN statement critical of China’s behavior emerging from a meeting hosted on its own ground, but in doing so it may have reminded ASEAN countries of their need to stick together in the face of powerful neighbors and made it harder to win future battles on the subject.

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Clouds Gathering as Obama Hosts Southeast Asian Leaders at Sunnylands

ASEAN leaders gather for a family photo with U.S. President Barack Obama (5th L) after a US-ASEAN meeting at the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia November 21, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Photo courtesy aseanmp.org

On Monday and Tuesday, February 15-16, President Obama will host eight leaders and two senior alternates from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) at Sunnylands, the former estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg in Rancho Mirage, CA.

The Sunnylands summit will be an historic development in US-ASEAN relations and a significant testament to the positive impact of the Obama administration’s Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and its broad all-of-government reengagement with ASEAN. But amidst the bonhomie many if not most of the leaders are likely to have more questions than answers about future US initiatives towards the region.

Obama and most Presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have used the Sunnylands conference center for retreats and to host high-level foreign visitors.  Obama hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping at Sunnylands in 2013.

But even as relations with ASEAN have never been stronger, clouds are gathering over arguably the world’s most successful developing region. The most serious are blowing from China, which has followed an erratic course almost since Xi Jinping became Asia’s “man-in-a-hurry” since he took office in March 2013.

Since 2000 the ASEAN countries have averaged GDP growth of more than 5 percent, though per capita income and living standards still vary widely.   McKinsey & Company judged ASEAN collectively to rank the lowest among the world’s largest economies in GDP growth volatility from 2000-2013.

Still, economic cooperation has generally not lived up to the hopes and aspirations of most member countries.  Over nearly five decades the rhetorical bar regarding intra-ASEAN trade and investment has always been set significantly higher than actual performance.

At the time of the initiation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, the ten countries were still trading much more with the rest of the world than with one other, especially if trade figures are adjusted to separate intraregional trade among Japanese and Chinese corporate shipments of parts and components for their regional supply chains.

Relations with the US have been warm throughout ASEAN’s expansion and evolution, though US preoccupation with the Middle East after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq created significant anxiety in some capitals about the strength of American interest and staying power.   Relations have been on the upswing since the beginning of the Obama administration, though some important moves such as the Rebalance to Southeast Asia and closer engagement with Vietnam had bureaucratic if not high level political roots in the last year or so of the George W. Bush administration.

To date, nervousness about China’s increasingly assertive efforts to solidify its claim to nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea—including parts of the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of five ASEAN countries—has been the single most important reason for the positive reception in the region to the US military rebalancing to East Asia and the US’s its broader political and economic reengagement with Southeast Asia.

China’s effort to create a modern mare nostrum in the South China Sea through bullying and the deployment of overwhelming numbers of maritime police vessels, Coast Guard and PLA warships remain a continuing threat to regional peace and stability and drive other claimants closer to the US, but in recent months China’s fast slowing economy and unsettling blunders by the Central Bank have created even more imminent dangers to both to ASEAN economies  and regional stability.

The main reason has been China’s emergence little more than five years ago as the single largest market for ASEAN exports of commodities and manufactured goods. Chinese imports and fast growing American investment were twin engines of growth that supported ASEAN throughout the global recession.

Now China’s rapidly slowing growth and questions about its financial stability are imposing a serious and unexpected drag on ASEAN’s largest economies, where massive Chinese investment in mines as well as deforestation in order to create rubber and oil palm plantations and transportation infrastructure have left communities adrift in a wasteland of environmental devastation.

The falling Yuan and the Xi administration’s surprisingly clumsy handling of its financial turmoil have shaken investor confidence throughout the world.  China’s economic slowdown is likely to continue until policymakers finally make well recognized but politically difficult reforms and the economy purges itself of excess capacity and non-performing debt.  Meanwhile, the rapid fall in imports of commodities coupled with a weak and still tenuous recovery of the global economy pose a serious short and medium threat to the wellbeing of most of the ASEAN countries.

Several non-military moves of the Obama administration, including the 2009 Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), have been strongly welcomed by the relevant countries—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam in the case of the LMI and Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam in the case of the TPP talks. But Thailand and one or more other countries have reason for concern that their own exports and attractiveness to multi-national investors will suffer as a consequence.

How Washington responds to the situation in the South China Sea and its overall policy towards Beijing are certain to be high on the list of talking points for the ASEAN leaders, as will a range of multilateral and bilateral development and capacity building programs under the framework of the new US-ASEAN Strategic Partnership and the LMI.

Equally if not more important will be the TPP agreement and its uncertain fate in Congress. If approved by Congress, the far-reaching agreement  will almost certainly have significant economic, financial and even domestic political impacts on both the four ASEAN signatories, as well as the six who are not. Non-signatory ASEAN countries as well as China will be disadvantaged by restrictions on third party content.  The most likely short-term disadvantage will fall on Thailand, the largest ASEAN economy after Indonesia, because of its deep integration in regional supply chains and geographic centrality astride major regional transportation networks.

In addition TPP discussions and the South China Sea tensions, concern that ISIS is establishing a foothold in the region and the best means to counter its recruitment efforts and the establishment of terrorist cells will be high on the Sunnylands agenda.  Economic and security concerns, particularly those where the root cause emanates from China, continue to drive several ASEAN states closer to the US, openly in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines and quietly in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is unsurprising that these issues will drive the conversation at Sunnylands. The Obama administration and ASEAN would also be wise to begin give equal weight to conversations on climate change resilience and energy governance, two areas which ASEAN countries are lagging but are beginning to articulate the need for external partnerships.

 

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What’s Old is New Again: Predictions for Southeast Asia 2016

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Much can change in a year’s time. In January 2015, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was still alive, Aung San Suu Kyi’s future as leader of Myanmar was quite uncertain and East by Southeast was not making any predictions about international affairs in Southeast Asia. But again, much can change in a year’s time.

2016 will be a critical period for geopolitics in the region, as new strategic relationships are formed and existing ones strengthened. Many experts talk of a growing polarization of the region as countries position themselves between the US and China, a trend due in large part to rising tensions in the South China Sea. The conflict will take center stage in 2016. Look for the the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration to publish its initial findings on the Philippines’ case against China in the first half of 2016. Despite not ruling on sovereignty issues, the outcome of this case will likely anger China and lead to a more aggressive stance towards the Philippines and other claimants. As the Philippines and Vietnam rely more heavily on the US for security guarantees in the South China Sea, more US flyovers and naval patrols in the contested waters are to be expected. Look for the US Navy to begin to use Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for “maintenance” purposes and to park its ships on a somewhat permanent basis  in the Philippines’ Subic Bay after joint military exercises finish in April 2016.

Conversely, look for the emerging Sino-Thai regional axis to be solidified in 2016. This relationship, despite not bringing much to the languishing Thai economy, will tighten the ruling junta’s grip on power. Thailand’s long drift towards authoritarianism will add further strains on ties with the US, its long-term external security power. Of course, the permanent white elephant in the room in Thailand is the king’s health. With his majesty in poor health, lese majeste cases will continue to multiply as the junta’s concern grows.  His death and the subsequent succession struggle would likely send the country into chaos, even with the army in control. Such a collapse of the Thai political structure would have major repercussions for the region’s stability.

Laos is also in for a tough year ahead. Its chairing of ASEAN will do more to highlight its shortcomings than celebrate its successes. With the opening of Xayaburi Dam, Don Sahong Dam scheduled to break ground in 2016 and preliminary studies beginning on a third Mekong dam at Pak Beng, there will be renewed calls from the international community for Laos to reconsider its hydropower plans for the Mekong River. The landlocked country’s lack of finesse in dealing with the South China Sea conflict will also draw criticism, all punctuated by continuing questions about the kidnapping of Lao activist Sombath Somphone.

In Cambodia, the political impasse between the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party will continue through the first half of 2016. Expect strongman Hun Sen to find an 11th hour solution paving the way for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return from self-imposed exile to begin preparing for the 2017 parliamentary elections.

Barring another major fracture in Thai politics, Vietnam’s National Party Congress will mark the region’s most significant political transition in 2016. Nguyen Tan Dung is likely to be selected as Vietnamese Communist Party chairman, with Truong Tan Sang staying on as president or similar role to balance Dung’s reformist tendencies. Dung’s leadership will be key as Vietnam implements the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a painful process that will force Vietnam to learn to run and walk at the same time. Dung’s princeling son, Nguyen Thanh Nhgi, will also be elevated to the Central Committee and has a bright path ahead if his father can lead the country into a new era of high economic growth and balanced relations between the US, China and Russia.

Corruption scandals will continue to keep a stranglehold on Indonesian and Malaysian politics. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo’s efforts to prop up a sagging economy will be hampered by an unstable cabinet and nagging questions relating to 2015’s Freeport corruption scandal. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak will continue to face intense public scrutiny over the 1MDB scandal. It is possible that Najib will use a new national security law to muffle Malaysian civil society’s calls for his resignation.

After refreshingly open elections in 2015, 2016 will be a year of political posturing for Myanmar. As Aung San Suu Kyi and her victorious National League for Democracy take power in early 2016, the military will position itself to retain many of its past privileges. Look for Than Shwe and the other generals to create a formal post in the government for Aung San Suu Kyi, who is legally barred from the presidency, in a bid to define and contain her power as head of the NLD. Those expecting radical change from the NLD government will be disappointed – there will be little structural political reform, the NLD’s foreign policy will be largely similar to Thein Sein’s, and the ethnic reconciliation process will still muddle along. However, look for the new ruling party to permanently shut down the Myitsone hydropower project and consider suspending the Salween river’s cascade of dams in order to push along the ethnic peace process.

Like 2015, this year will see a further intensification of the Rohingya refugee crisis. However, with the world’s eyes adjusted to seeing the plight of refugees, there will be more attention paid to the issue and Aung San Suu Kyi will receive pressure from both Western and Muslim-majority countries to solve the problem of Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. Another ethnic group that came to the forefront last year, China’s Uighur population will also stay in the news in 2016. Increased crackdowns in their home Xinjiang province will force more refugees into Southeast Asia, and lead to a handful of Uighur-related terrorist attacks, both foiled and executed, in Thailand and Indonesia.

The regional economy will see decreased growth in 2016 as a result of slowing growth and structural issues in the Chinese economy. Chinese money will still flow south as the One Belt One Road strategy is rolled out and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens for business. Contrary to some expectations, the AIIB’s first loan recipient will not be Myanmar, but either Laos or Cambodia.

On the other side of the coin, the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership will begin the ratification process in a number of regional countries this year. Our bets on order of approval are Singapore first, followed by Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia will likely commit to the TPP by the end of the year while Thailand’s economic struggles under the military junta will push it closer to joining. Much of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands conference in February will be centered on TPP ratification, along with South China Sea issues and counter-terrorism cooperation, and will serve to solidify relations between the US and the bloc. ASEAN leaders will be looking for assurances of American commitment to the region during the next administration and they will likely receive them. Of course the future of the TPP and the US Rebalance to Asia lies in the fate of the US Presidential elections and our prediction is that America’s first woman president will keep the Rebalance at the forefront of her foreign policy – after all it was her idea.

Last but not least, the Asian Economic Community will be the same on January 1, 2017 as it was at the head of this year – a half-baked dream with little hope of success.

To all of the East by Southeast readers and their families, we wish a you happy new year and much joy and success in 2016!

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John Kerry’s 2015 ASEAN Summit Speech 8.6.15

Transcript of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech and Q&A at 2015 ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  August 6.2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. So let me begin, if I may, by thanking our Malaysian hosts for their very warm welcome and for having really put together an exemplary ASEAN and regional forum as well as the entertainment and gathering us. We really appreciate the generous hospitality and quality of their chairmanship for the past year.

I think all of you know that ASEAN has really long been the centerpiece of the Asia Pacific’s multilateral architecture and it’s really also a key of the United States’ ongoing focus on the initiative to rebalance our resources, our time, our energy, our effort with respect to the region.

In my remarks at Singapore Management University earlier this week, I spoke about how we seek a region in which countries come to each other’s aid when natural disasters strike or human emergencies occur. In that spirit, I want to express my personal and my country’s condolences to all those affected by the flooding and the very heavy rains in Myanmar. The United States – I said there would be additional assistance. The United States will provide $600,000 of immediate relief through USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. And we have a team on the ground now working with local officials in order to meet the most urgent needs. We will continue to follow the situation and we’re going to work with our partners in order to help those in the most affected areas.

I also want to express my condolences to the folks who have experienced an extraordinary tragic loss of life on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. While we were here during the course of this journey with the discovery of the flap on Reunion Island, all the wounds have been opened again, all of the sorrow is felt even more intensely, and there are no words to express adequately our sense of loss and our sense of heartbreak to the families of the victims. Obviously, we hope very much that the debris that was discovered on the Reunion Island, if it is found to be conclusively from the aircraft, that this will help to bring some sense of closure about what happened and perhaps even more reliable information that can be tracked from the currents that may even narrow the area of search, which we would hope for.

I want to commend the French authorities and other international experts for their diligence both in the analysis of this wing but also in their overall investigation as well as in the ongoing search.

Over the last two days here, we reviewed a number of challenges that are related to the security and quality of life of this region that require the kind of cooperative thought and action that ASEAN was specifically designed to achieve. We are, for example, all of us – all of us at this meeting – united in our desire to counter and mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change, one of the most acute and potentially devastating threats to our shared future. And those countries that have not yet announced their independent – nationally designed contributions – defined contributions, all stepped up and said they intend to do so, some of them very shortly. Australia, for instance, has a big meeting in the next couple of days.

So people are pushing towards the target date of the Paris negotiations, and we welcome that. I was able to report to our colleagues that the United States has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions to the lowest levels in two decades and that we have set a goal for even more ambitious reductions by the year 2025. At the ASEAN-U.S. ministerial meeting, we discussed the importance of every single country going into this effort, each of them putting forward their own targets for the post-2020 period. And I would remind everybody that was actually agreed to at the ASEAN-U.S. summit last fall.

Following the Lower Mekong Initiative meeting – the ministerial meeting – we issued a statement on building a sustainable future for the Mekong. I think it’s an important document because it lays out a plan of action for the next five years and the statement reiterates our goal of supporting a smart and responsible development along the Mekong River. And the Mekong River, as everybody in this part of the world knows, is one of the great rivers of the world and millions of people rely on that river as their source of livelihood, their source – protein, of food. It is critical.

At the ASEAN regional forum, ministers endorsed a statement committing everyone to tackle illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. And I was proud to announce a new multiyear Oceans and Fisheries Partnership with the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center in order to develop a system for documenting and tracing illegal fishing with an initial commitment by the United States of 4.3 million for the first year as it gets going.

On the security side, I expressed our serious concerns over the developments in the South China Sea, including a massive land reclamation and the potential militarization of land features. I reiterated America’s strong support of freedom of navigation, overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea. These rights, I would remind everybody, are universal rights and they must be respected by every nation, large and small. To that end, I made clear our belief that the claimants to some of these reefs, islands, to some of these areas, should – all of them, every one of them – take concrete steps in order to try to lower the tensions by refraining from further land reclamation, militarization, and construction projects. A number of the claimants today made clear their willingness to refrain from those very actions.

So this is an important step forward, but obviously there’s work left to be done since no claimant is going to be expected to stop if others are disregarding this call and continuing to proceed with their work. So a policy of restraint will create the diplomatic space that is required for a meaningful code of conduct to emerge. And we will work very hard with all of our partners in order to try to help that code of conduct come into being. It is vital that claimants refrain from provocative unilateral actions, that they pursue their claims according to international law, and that they settle their differences peacefully through rule of law.

I also reaffirm that the United States has very strong interests itself in the South China Sea and we have a strong interest in the way that disputes are addressed. The United States will continue to take steps to support peace and stability in this region, to uphold international law, and protect our interests throughout this arena as we have, in fact, for decades.

In the East Asia Summit ministerial, we tackled a wide array of pressing political and security challenges from maritime security to cyber security to countering violent extremism. And I’m very pleased to report that the – excuse me – that the East Asia Summit foreign ministers endorsed the Vienna P5+1 plan for the reduction of Iran’s – the reduction – the elimination of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and I think that the endorsement that came from all of the countries there today this morning really underscores the interest that people on a global basis have in the success of this agreement.

I also had an opportunity to meet with the prime minister and the foreign minister in bilateral meetings. In addition to global and regional issues, we discussed our shared interest in wrapping up successfully the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and especially, cooperating to combat violent extremism. I also raised concerns about freedom of expression and I spoke with the prime minister about Anwar Ibrahim’s situation.

We also talked about accelerating progress in the fight against human trafficking. This was a very significant part of my message at a number of the meetings that we had publicly with all of my colleagues as well as privately with each of my bilaterals. Human trafficking is too prevalent in places where people who are migrants or who are simply poor and without and recourse or refugees are preyed on. And it is intolerable that in the year 2015 anyone should be content to live with what amounts to modern day slavery – people who are pressed into any number of types of work from sexual exploitation to the labor market exploitation and put into positions they can’t escape from, and some of them, even literally, very much imprisoned in those positions.

The Government of Malaysia, I’m pleased to say, has made significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards of the elimination of trafficking. And in my conversation with the prime minister, we talked about the ways in which we can cooperate to do more, and the prime minister welcomed that opportunity, particularly in the field of law enforcement. I made it clear in my meetings with both the prime minister and the foreign minister that this is a priority for the United States and that they need to continue to show leadership, as they did in the passing with their laws, now with the full implementation of those laws.

And let me just say – I’m sure all of you feel this inherently, viscerally – that there is perhaps no greater threat to human dignity and no greater assault on basic freedom and no greater detraction from the values that we are espousing and trying to lift people up with, no greater evil alive today in many ways than human trafficking. We all need to be true to the principle that although money may be used for many things, we must never, ever allow a price tag to be attached to the heart and soul and the mind and freedom of a fellow human being. That is the standard that we need to set for all nations, and this will remain a main priority of both the State Department and the Obama Administration for the remainder his time in office.

So as always, when representatives of the United States of America and ASEAN nations get together, we really had a very full plate of challenges to discuss. And I can assure you, as I made it clear to my colleagues, the United States will remain deeply committed to the security of this region, deeply committed to the prosperity of Southeast Asia, and of the Asia Pacific more generally.

I was thrilled to meet with young students and recent graduates, all members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders effort that President Obama has started – YSEALI, as it’s called. The energy and excitement that they feel about the possibilities of the future is really what defines not just Malaysia but this entire region. And we’re fully engaged and confident because we believe in those young people and in the possibilities that they believe in. And we will do everything in our power to work with the governments of this region to help deliver to their people.

So on that note, I’d be delighted to try to take a few questions.

 

MR KIRBY: First question will come from Matt Lee, Associated Press.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: Ready?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, sir.

 

QUESTION: Okay. I want to take you a little bit further afield and ask you about your meeting last night with Foreign Minister Lavrov (inaudible), because the word is that you two signed off on or made some significant progress on the new UN Security Council resolution that would, in fact, create a mechanism to investigate the use or alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, and that that resolution could be presented for a vote as early as tomorrow, I guess. So I’m wondering if you could tell us what the details are of this mechanism and if you’re at all concerned that Russia’s apparent willingness to do this while still holding to its friendship to Assad will string out or delay actual bringing to justice of any perpetrators that are found or whether you’re convinced that this is actually going to do the trick. Thank you.

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Thanks, Matt. Let me comment on the meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We discussed a number of issues. We talked about Ukraine and the need to fully implement Minsk and what seems to be the difference of opinion with respect to what Minsk means relative to the elections and the modalities for the elections and the constitutional reform. There is a meeting tomorrow that will take place by video and we will both instruct our teams to try to dig in and make some suggestions for each of them as to how we might be able to try to move forward, because we both agree that these working groups are the best mechanism for the full implementation of the Minsk agreement and the defusing of the crisis in Ukraine.

We’re not far away now from having an agreement for the flow of (inaudible), for some rail – resumption of rail track, for the OSCE to be able to have greater oversight and understanding of what weapons will be pulled back from the line of contact. All of these issues are very much on the table and part of the discussion at this point. And I think that Foreign Minister Lavrov is anxious, as I am, to try to see as much progress be made as rapidly as possible as we come to the end of summer and beginning of fall and obviously other kinds of challenges that may come forward.

But yes, we also talked about the UN resolution, and indeed, I believe, reached an agreement that should try to see that resolution voted on shortly, which will create a process of accountability which has been missing. What happens is the inspection process produces evidence of use of some kind of weapon. By the way, so we’re clear, all declared chemical weapons – mustard and sarin and other declared that are illegal – were removed. The allegations that exist today are almost exclusively – not – not exclusively, there’s one – maybe one instance of some or two instances of something else – about chlorine. And chlorine by itself is not one of the required declaration items that has to be removed. But when mixed in a certain way, chlorine can be become a toxic agent and a illegal chemical.

So what we are trying to do is get beyond the mere finding of the fact that it may have been used and actually find out who used it and designate accountability for its use. And what we will achieve, we believe, with this resolution is the creation of a mechanism which will actually enable us to do that. That’s our hope. So I think it was a worthwhile meeting and hopefully the UN will be able to proceed forward with an agreement unless there is some last-minute glitch, which I hope there will not be.

MR KIRBY: Next question. (Inaudible).

 

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the U.S. Government’s decision to upgrade Malaysia to Tier 2 in the human trafficking watch list has been criticized by those who feel that Malaysia has not done enough to merit such a rating. Do you think Malaysia has done enough? And what do you have to say about accusations that the rating has just been given to pave the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with Malaysia?

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Not – let me just be crystal clear, because I am the person who approved this. I personally signed off on it. And I had zero conversation with anybody in the Administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision – zero. The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendation of my team, because Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014, they’ve consulted with civil society, they drafted amendments to Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country’s flawed victim protection regime to change.

Now, let me make this clear: Tier 2 Watch List ranking actually indicates there’s still a lot of room for improvement. It’s not a gold seal of approval by any means. It is a sign of movement in the right direction, but it also means there’s a lot of way to go. And that’s the discussion that I had yesterday with the foreign minister and with the prime minister. In the last year, Malaysian authorities increased the number of trafficking investigations, they increased the number of prosecutions relative to 2013, and they adopted a pilot project in order to allow a limited number of trafficking victims to leave government facilities in order to go work.

Now, we still are concerned about the comparison of the number of investigations and prosecutions to the number of the convictions. It’s not good enough yet. But we felt that because the law just passed, because it’s being implemented, that this gives us an opportunity to work with the government, which is exactly what I got commitments to do yesterday and now we will do in order to up the number of convictions. And one of the reasons for that disparity is the difficultly of getting evidence. It’s very complicated. It’s very hard to do. We believe that we can be very helpful through Federal Bureau of Investigation and through other entities that work at this to help Malaysian authorities be able to develop greater capacity to gather the evidence that will produce the convictions that we want to see so we can end impunity for this crime.

So our – my judgment was I want a country that we can work with and improve that has already indicated its willingness to start down that road in a significant way. Malaysia has done that, and this year will be a very important year of truth. If they don’t advance, if there isn’t sufficient cooperation, if there isn’t a genuine effort to improve the gathering of evidence and to have better prosecutions, and if the pilot project isn’t built on and so forth, then next year, obviously, I have the distinct ability to be able to make a different decision. But I’m confident it was the right decision and I can guarantee you it was made without regard to any other issue.

MR KIRBY: Last question from Pam Dockins, Voice of America.

 

QUESTION: Thank you. As you mentioned, the South China Sea has been a focal point here. First of all, what is the U.S. view on China’s statement that it has stopped reclamation work in the South China Sea?

And then secondly, a follow-up on the last question regarding human trafficking, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today has a hearing on the State Department’s human trafficking report. How do you feel about the hearing to look into how the final report was compiled? Do you feel that the hearing is justified?

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think any hearing on a report of the – of any agency of the government is justified. I mean, obviously, the Congress has a right to – I mean, the Congress are the ones who mandate these reports and they have every right in the world to take a look to see whether or not it’s being implemented in the way that Congress intended. So I don’t have any problem with that at all, and I’m absolutely confident about the work that our TIP team does which literally takes an entire year to do; it is extremely thorough. There’s an enormous amount of input from our embassies, from our consulates, from people in the field, and I think that that will come out in the course of the hearing.

So frankly, I look forward to the members of Congress learning more about exactly how in depth our efforts are, how professional they are, and how exhausting the effort is that they have joined with us in engaging.

Now, with respect to the South China Sea, first of all, let me remind everybody that the United States doesn’t take a position on the competing claims. We’re not choosing between claimants, and that’s for the legal process or the diplomatic process to do. What we do urge is all the claimants to refrain from unilateral actions that create tension or the potential of conflict, or frankly, the potential of a mistake that could then become an international incident. And it’s our sense that the Chinese have indicated that they have stopped. I hope it’s true. I don’t know yet. What’s really needed, though, is an agreement to stop not just the reclamation but the large-scale construction and militarization. So it’s not just an issue of reclamation. And our hope is we put forward a proposal that people stop all three and that they step back and work the process of the code of conduct and whatever other legal process to try to resolve these issues.

I did find, and I will say this openly, that in my meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he indicated a – I think a different readiness of China to try to resolve some of this, though I think it still was not as fulsome as many of us would like to see, but it’s a beginning. And it may open up some opportunity for conversation on this in the months ahead; we’ll have to wait and see. But the easiest thing of all would be for everybody to adopt a position of we’re not going to do anything except routine maintenance – no new buildings, no new facilities, no militarization, no more reclamation – while the legal process is resolved in order to give certainty to everybody, which is what is required here.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Appreciate it.

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Filed under ASEAN, Current Events, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, USA

Daniel Russel: Remarks at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference

russel
On July 21, 2015 at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Daniel R. Russel, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the US State Department delivered a keynote speech clearly outlining the US position on China’s recent land reclamation action in the South China Sea and its implications for US-China relations.  Given the timeliness and relevance of this speech, we’ve posted it in its entirety below.  
Good afternoon. Thank you, Murray, for the kind introduction. It’s always a pleasure to be back at CSIS.

Let me start by laying out the essential context.

The United States has always had interests in Asia. These interests have only grown stronger as our economies have become more interconnected, and as our people have grown closer through travel and the Internet.

For the last seven decades, we’ve worked with allies and partners in the region to build shared prosperity and shared security. In the last six-and-a-half years, in particular, we’ve invested in building cooperative relations with every country in the region. This is the rebalance.

There are many types of investment the world, and Asia, needs in order to grow—investment in people, first and foremost; investment in business; in physical infrastructure, and just as important; investment in “cooperative capital” – the international law and order infrastructure that facilitates the interactions between countries, that advances regional economic integration, and helps states peacefully manage and settle disputes.

The U.S. makes balanced investments in all of these areas.

The last one, the international rules-based system, has been the ‘essential but underappreciated underpinning’ of global growth over the last 70 years. That’s especially true in Asia, where many countries have grown – and continue to grow – their economies through international trade, especially trade with the U.S.

Asia’s nations have achieved so much in recent decades—reducing poverty, raising living standards, and creating opportunities for their people. They’ve done it through hard work, cooperation with each other, partnership with the U.S., and by jointly developing and operating within a rules-based system.

And we are helping them to do even more:

We’re taking broad-based, sustainable economic growth to a new level with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP embraces a future that reaches beyond trade and investment to include high standards for environmental protection, for labor rights.

TPP’s provisions will support a thriving, growing, entrepreneurial middle class that is able to connect with the world and do business through a free, open Internet.

We’re taking the security architecture that underpins this brighter future to a new level by investing in regional institutions like the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in addition to our longstanding work with global ones like the U.N.

These institutions uphold norms and tackle tough challenges; they can help bring parties together to hash out disagreements, or when bilateral diplomacy doesn’t succeed, help to have those disputes resolved peacefully in a fair, impartial manner.

Standing behind and supporting these institutions is our system of alliances and partnerships.

This network has helped keep the peace in the region since World War II. And through a series of important agreements with key security partners over the last few years, we’ve refreshed them so they’ll last for decades to come.

We’re taking environmental protection to a new level, through our work on ocean preservation, on combatting climate change and its effects, and through programs like the Lower Mekong Initiative that help make economic growth environmentally sustainable.

As we pursue this broad, forward-looking vision for the region, we’ve worked constructively with China—a lot.

We’ve built greater understanding through President Obama’s 20 some-odd meetings with the Chinese President or Premier; and through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and an alphabet soup of other consultations.

We’ve put a floor under the relationship so it can withstand tensions or even a crisis.

And in the last couple years, all of this work has paid off—we’ve made measurable progress in a range of cooperative efforts: in low-carbon policies; countering piracy at sea; in stemming the Ebola crisis; supporting a better future for Afghanistan; and much more.

But unfortunately, the situation in the South China Sea does not fit this cooperative pattern.

Now, the U.S. is not a claimant. As I’ve said here at CSIS, these maritime and territorial disputes are not intrinsically a US-China issue. The issue is between China and its neighbors and – ultimately – it’s an issue of what kind of power China will become. But for a variety of reasons, the competing claims and problematic behavior in the South China Sea have emerged as a serious area of friction in the U.S.-China relationship.

Let’s take a step back and recall, as I’m sure you discussed this morning, that there is a history of competing assertions of sovereignty and jurisdiction in the South China Sea, and even violent conflicts in 1974 and 1988.

There are no angels here. The occupation of land features in this contested space over the years looked a lot like “squatters’ rights.” But that is something that in 2002 the claimants agreed to stop doing.

In that year, all the claimants (and the ASEAN states) signed a Declaration of Conduct. In it, and on other occasions, they have committed “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from … inhabiting the presently uninhabited… features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner”.

In the Declaration of Conduct, they also committed to negotiate a Code of Conduct that would lay out and lock in responsible behavior. But in the ensuing 13 years, work on the Code has stalled, and the Declaration has not been sufficient to prevent confrontations or to help claimants resolve these disputes peacefully.

Recently, the level of concern in the region has escalated as the scale and speed of China’s reclamation work has become public. The Chairman’s statement at the ASEAN leaders’ summit in April was unusually blunt, speaking of “serious concerns” about “land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability….”

While China’s statement on June 16 that it would stop reclamation work “soon” was presumably intended to reassure, its effect was in fact alarming since the statement went on to warn that China would construct military facilities on these reclaimed outposts.

So we are pushing the parties to revive the spirit of cooperation embodied in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct.

We see a broad consensus within ASEAN on a path forward to reduce tensions and promote peaceful handling of these disputes. And we support ASEAN’s efforts to expeditiously conclude an effective, rigorous Code of Conduct that builds on the Declaration by translating its cooperative spirit into specific “do’s and don’ts.”

But to make this happen, the parties need to create room for diplomacy.

In the famous words of Rich Armitage’s Dictum Number 1, “when you find yourself in a hole – stop digging.” That is the advice we are giving to all the claimants: lower the temperature and create breathing room by: stopping land reclamation on South China Sea features; stopping construction of new facilities; and stopping militarization of existing facilities.

These are steps the parties could commit to immediately; steps that would cost them nothing; steps that would significantly reduce risks; steps that would open the door to eventual resolution of the disputes.

Secretary Kerry has made this point to Chinese leaders and to the other claimants, and will be meeting with his counterparts early next month in Malaysia at the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, to push for progress on this important priority.

Now, steps to exercise restraint through a moratorium and a Code of Conduct will create diplomatic space and help keep the peace, but they won’t address the question of maritime boundaries or sovereignty over land features.

So what’s the way forward?

When it comes to competing claims, two of the main peaceful paths available to claimants are negotiations and arbitration.

Countries across the region in fact have resolved maritime and territorial disputes peacefully and cooperatively, whether through direct negotiations or through third-party dispute settlement mechanisms.

Just a few examples: Indonesia and the Philippines recently agreed on their maritime boundary;

Malaysia and Singapore used international court and tribunal proceedings to resolve disputes concerning the Singapore Strait; and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delimited the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Burma.

A common thread runs through the maritime boundary disputes that have been resolved peacefully: the parties asserted maritime claims based on land features, and were prepared to resolve those disputes in accordance with international law.

This is why we’ve consistently called on all claimants to clarify the scope of their claims in the South China Sea, in accordance with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. Doing so would narrow the differences and offer the basis for negotiations and cooperative solutions.

Regrettably, I don’t know anyone in the region who believes that a negotiated settlement between China and other claimants is attainable in the current atmosphere.

And the multiple competing claims in some parts of the South China Sea make negotiations that much more difficult.

And then there is the absolutist political position taken by some claimants who insist that their own claims are “indisputable” and represent territory – however distant from their shores – that was “entrusted to them by ancestors” and who vow never to relinquish “one inch.”

What about arbitration? As this audience knows, there currently is an arbitration case pending under the Law of the Sea Convention between the Philippines and China.

At the heart of the case is the question of the so-called “Nine Dash Line” and whether that has a legal basis under the international law of the sea. It also asks what maritime entitlements, if any, are generated by features that China occupies? In other words, regardless of whose jurisdiction it may fall under, would Mischief Reef, for example, be entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea? A 200nm exclusive economic zone? A continental shelf?

Now, it’s important to note that the Tribunal is not being asked – and is not authorized to rule – on the question of sovereignty over disputed land features. Everyone recognizes that the sovereignty issue is beyond the Tribunal’s jurisdiction. Claimants would need to agree to bring that sort of sovereignty dispute before a court or tribunal, typically the ICJ.

But under the Law of the Sea Convention, the Tribunal is authorized to first determine whether it has jurisdiction under the Convention over any of the Philippines’ claims in the case and, if it does, whether the Philippines’ arguments have merit.

The United States, of course, is not a party to this arbitration and does not take a position on the merits of the case. But when they became parties to the Convention, both the Philippines and China agreed to its compulsory dispute settlement regime.

Under this regime, the decision of the arbitral tribunal is legally binding on the parties to the dispute. It’s a treaty. In keeping with the rule of law, both the Philippines and China are obligated to abide by whatever decision may be rendered in the case, whether they like it or not.

Now China has argued that the tribunal lacks jurisdiction, and the tribunal has specifically considered this issue in recent hearings in The Hague, looking very carefully at a position paper published by China. But if the Tribunal concludes that it in fact has jurisdiction in this case, it will proceed to the merits, including potentially the question of the legality of China’s “Nine-Dash Line.”

Should it then rule that the “Nine-Dash Line” is not consistent with the Law of the Sea Convention, and particularly if the Tribunal ruled that the features cited in the case do not generate EEZ or continental shelf entitlements, the scope of the overlapping maritime claims – and hopefully the points of friction – would be significantly reduced.

But it’s also important to recognize that even in this outcome, important sovereignty and boundary issues would remain unresolved.

This is as good a time as any to acknowledge (as China has often pointed out) that the United States has not acceded to the Law of the Sea Convention, although accession has been supported by every Republican and Democratic administration since the Convention was signed and sent to the Senate in 1994. It is supported by the U.S. military, by industry, environmental groups, and other stakeholders.

For the United States to secure the benefits of accession, the Senate has to provide its advice and consent, as I hope it ultimately will.

But even as we encourage the parties to work for long term solutions, we are obligated to protect U.S. interests. Let me take a moment to examine what some of those interests are:

  • Protecting unimpeded freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea by all, not just the U.S. Navy;
  • Honoring our alliance and security commitments, and retaining the full confidence of our partners and the region in the United States;
  • Aiding the development of effective regional institutions, including a unified ASEAN;
  • Promoting responsible marine environmental practices;
  • Fostering China’s peaceful rise in a manner that promotes economic growth and regional stability, including through consistency with international law and standards.
  • And more generally, an international order based on compliance with international law and the peaceful of disputes without the threat or use of force.

As a practical matter, in addition to our support for principles such as the rule of law, we are taking steps to help all countries in the region cooperate on maritime issues. For example, we’re investing in the maritime domain awareness capabilities of coastal states in the region.

This allows countries to protect safety at sea and respond to threats such as piracy, marine pollution and illegal trafficking. Maritime awareness also advances transparency, in line with our call to all claimants to be more open and transparent about their capabilities, actions, and intentions at sea.

The U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations are another element of a global policy to promote compliance with the international law of the sea.

Our goal is to ensure that not only can the U.S. Navy or Air Force exercise their navigational rights and freedoms, but ships and planes from even the smallest countries are also able to enjoy those rights without risk. The principles underlying unimpeded lawful commerce apply to vessels from countries around the globe.

And under international law, all countries—not just the United States—enjoy the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that our diplomacy and the U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations help protect.

For us, it’s not about the rocks and shoals in the South China Sea or the resources in and under it, it’s about rules and it’s about the kind of neighborhood we all want to live in. So we will continue to defend the rules, and encourage others to do so as well. We will also encourage all countries to apply principles of good neighborliness to avoid dangerous confrontations.

Let me close by mentioning that we have a host of cooperative initiatives we’re working on for the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the East Asia Summit—all of which will advance much more quickly and effectively when tensions in the South China Sea are lower.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have shown that they are not afraid to tackle the biggest challenges facing US foreign policy and the world. And we’re energized, here in the fourth quarter of this administration to do much more in partnership with our Allies, with ASEAN and with China.

For us, for the region, and for China – finding a peaceful, lawful and responsible way forward on the South China Sea is a prerequisite to achieving our longer term goals.

Thank you.

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Filed under ASEAN, China, Current Events, Philippines, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, Vietnam, water

The US Rebalance in Vietnam & The Philippines

In Southeast Asia, the United States has rebalanced its attention to a vital region while seeking to avoid alarming China. The Obama Administration’s comprehensive efforthas engaged a diverse array of countries, strengthening ties with both unlikely partners and longtime allies. Coupled with a brief study of American interests in the region, an examination of the strategy applied to two countries – Vietnam and the Philippines –reveals little cause for the Chinese concern that America is pursuing a policy of containment.

VIETNAM

In Vietnam, the U.S. has succeeded in creating a partnership with a nation that was a bitter foe just forty years ago. Perceiving China’s recent policies as a disturbing sign of greater assertiveness to come, Vietnam has felt it necessary to hedge against its neighbor by pursuing a closer relationship with the United States.

The driving force behind this reconciliation has been China’s provocations in the South China Sea, which have infuriated the Vietnamese government and its people and caused them to view China as a potentially destabilizing force in the region. The May 2014 placement of a Chinese oil rig within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) marked a highpoint in the tensions, sparking deadly anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and naval incidents in the area of the drilling.

Vietnamese and Chinese vessels clash near the disputed oil rig. Photo: Getty Images

Vietnamese and Chinese vessels clash near the disputed oil rig. Photo: Getty Images

Chinese diplomacy has not eased Vietnamese concerns. Rhetoric regarding the South China Sea has been inflexible: in 2010, officials labeled the region one of China’s “core interests,” joining only Taiwan and Tibet. At a meeting concerning the South China Sea the same year, in which all disputant states were present, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly stared at Singapore’s Foreign Minister while pointedly stating, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” In the eyes of Vietnam and its fellow Southeast Asian States, this threatening tone has confirmed fears inspired by China’s aggressive policy in the region.

While some American observers have gone so far as to call for a full treaty alliance with Hanoi, several barriers will keep a degree of separation the two countries. The first is Vietnam’s policy of the “three nos”: no military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, and no dependence on any countries for help in combating other countries. The last point is particularly important in the context of Vietnam’s history: when China invaded in 1979, the Soviet Union – having signed a defense treaty with Hanoi just a year before – declined to come to its aid. This history provides Vietnam with a powerful warning against reliance on powerful but distant allies.

Another analogy that suggests restraint is the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Looking to Moscow once more, Vietnam sees a disturbing example of how a major power will react to its small neighbor aligning with a rival. Of course, the comparison is imperfect, but the degree of similarity between the two cases is striking nonetheless.

The greatest constraint upon Vietnamese diplomacy is its economy’s dependence upon trade with China. China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner, and the source of many of the inputs critical to its burgeoning manufacturing industry. While some worry that tensions could lead to a trade war, economic concerns have thus far won out, and the Vietnamese government has been careful to avoid pushing China too far.

The Rebalance

Even with these constraints, Vietnam has welcomed American efforts to deepen ties on diplomatic, economic, and military fronts. The rebalancing is directed toward all of Asia, but extra attention has been directed toward Vietnam – a prominent victim of China’s actions in the South China Sea, and a country with an especially dynamic and promising economy.

America has promoted Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the main pillar of its economic rebalancing to Asia. The United States, Vietnam, and 11 other Asian-Pacific nations are currently negotiating the deal,which seeks to reduce both tariff and non-tariff trade barriers while maintaining high standards for intellectual property, the environment, and labor rights. American officials have said they would welcome China, but it is widely acknowledged that the deal’s standards are too stringent for China to adhere to. Vietnam also faces challenges to joining, especially with its reluctance to reform state-owned enterprises and labor rights. Its presence in the negotiations is a testament to the determination of both America and Vietnam to deepen their economic ties.

TPP

Current members negotiating the TPP. Image: The New York Times

 

Diplomatically, the bulk of American efforts are directed toward the region rather than individual states. With regard to the South China Sea disputes, the United States has recognized that no single Southeast Asian state can hope to receive bilateral negotiations with China on equal footing. As a result, it has worked quietly to promote a closer unification of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which wields significant influence but, like all regional organizations, is held back by the disagreements of its member states.

Even with the region-wide focus of diplomacy, however, a rapid exchange of interstate visits has reflected Vietnam’s importance. American congressional delegations and Administration officials have met with the Vietnamese with increasing regularity, and Gen. Martin Dempsey’s 2011 trip marked the first visit by a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1971.Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party and the country’s supreme leader, will make his first visit to the United States this June.

America’s military policy constitutes the most visible aspect of its rebalancing strategy, and naturally draws the bulk of Beijing’s complaints. In Vietnam, the U.S. has coupled emphasis on exchanges and cooperation with direct (although minor) military aid. Military-to-military ties have grown greatly in the past decade, particularly with the introduction of an annual Naval Engagement Activity (NEA), which pairs each navy in noncombat exercises. In 2014, the Secretary of the Navy also invited Vietnam to join the biannual, U.S.-led RIMPAC exercises, the largest naval exercise in the world.

While noncombat exercises are a mild form of cooperation, American promises of military aid to Vietnam reflect a much stronger commitment to rebalancing. In December of 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry announced $18 million in aid to Vietnam to “boost maritime security.” A portion of the money was earmarked for the purchase of five unarmed patrol boats for the Vietnamese Coast Guard – a minor increase, but symbolically significant. Additionally, Japan – the linchpin of American security in the Pacific and another country locked in a territorial dispute with China – provided Vietnam with an additional six boats, worth $5 million. And in 2014, the U.S. eased its ban on providing Vietnam with lethal arms, opening the door to a number ofsystems for its coastal defense.

Military Spending Infographic

THE PHILIPPINES

In the Philippines, the U.S. is working to further deepen its relationship with a treaty ally and longtime partner. After a brutal war with the United States that left it an American colony, the Philippines maintained a better relationship with its conqueror than most countries, and upon gaining independence sought American protection throughout the Cold War. While Filipinos resentment of U.S. military bases led to an American exit in the 1990s and a slight chill in relations, the Philippines remains one of America’s closest allies in the region.

Philippine-American Timeline Infographic

As with Vietnam, the Philippines’ desire to draw even closer to America is explained by Chinese tactics in the South China Sea. The Sino-Philippine conflict has actually been significantly more contentious. Because it shares no border with China, is less economically dependent, and has signed a mutual defense treaty with America, the Philippine government has been less constrained by geopolitics than its Vietnamese counterpart. (It should be noted, however, that the U.S. has declined to clarify whether this defense treaty applies to Philippine claims in the South China Sea.)

These circumstances have enabled the Philippine government to apply for international arbitration of its disputes in the South China Sea, a step that Vietnam considered too divisive. China has objected, stating that it will “neither accept nor participate” in the arbitration, and maintained its political stance of indisputable sovereignty throughout the South China Sea. It is highly unlikely that the suit will achieve any result.

In spite of greater economic insularity than Vietnam, the Philippines has still fallen victim to what isperhaps China’s greatest asset: economic coercion. China has employed this strategy often, taking advantage of its large domestic market and the control the state retains over the economy. In June of 2012, it reacted to a confrontation with the Philippine Navy by cutting off Filipino banana imports. Justifying the policy as a health regulation, China succeeded in choking an important industry and driving Manila to adopt a conciliatory tone.

The Rebalance

Economically, the United States and the Philippines are already quite close. America is the Philippines’ second-largest trade partner (after Japan) and its biggest investor. Still, the Obama Administration has worked to further enhance the relationship. While the Philippines does not currently take part in the TPP negotiations, it has expressed interest, and high-level officials from each country have met to discuss what its participation would look like. In 2011, the fiftieth anniversary of the bilateral defense treaty, the two countries signed a five-year Partnership For Growth (PFG) agreement, designating the Philippines as a priority area for American development assistance. That same year, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (a government agency) signed a five-year, $434 million compact to combat poverty and encourage growth in the Philippines.

Trade Growth Infographic

While historical closeness, cultural similarity, and the depth of Philippine-American exchange have already created close ties, American diplomats have sought to further reinforce the relationship. The two countries recently began holding a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue to institutionalize the regular exchange of ideas. And in 2011, Secretary of State Clinton visited the Philippines to release a joint Philippine-American declaration,reaffirming that the alliance had “never been stronger.”

The military aspect of rebalancing has consisted of naval aid, closer cooperation and training, and – most importantly – a strengthened defense treaty. Having always depended on its American counterpart, the Philippine Navy is one of the weakest in the region. Its flagship is a 45-year-old cutter, donated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2011. The U.S. has offered an additional ship, communications equipment, and training, but recognizes that no amount of aid will enable the Philippines to unilaterally defend against Chinese naval incursions.

The true cornerstone of the military rebalance is a ten-year enhanced defense pact negotiated in 2014. The agreement creates no permanent bases, an option that then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel dismissed as a “return to an outdated Cold War mentality.”Instead, it invites rotational deployments of American ships and advisers, which will significantly escalate military presence in the region. It also opens the door to greater commitments of military aid to the Philippines.

The symbolic value of a return to the Philippines, just over twenty years after public protest forced the closing of American bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base, is indicative of the region’s tense atmosphere. Some anti-American sentiment remains, stalling the agreement in a legal challenge that is now before the Philippine Supreme Court. Still, Philippine officials are confident that the case will be thrown out when a decision is reached.

Assessing American Intentions Throughout Southeast Asia

In spite of American efforts to paint the rebalance in nonthreatening terms, Beijing has frequently voiced its concern that the strategy aims to encircle and contain China. These complaints have especially been directed at the military components of these partnerships with Vietnam and the Philippines. China – at least publicly – eyes these moves suspiciously, and assumes that realist, hegemonic motives dominate American intentions.

For many reasons, however, this theory does not hold water. Even if China were to be excluded from the equation, a shift in attention to Asia would remain eminently logical. The War on Terror absorbed American resources in the Middle East for a decade after 9/11, but never promised long-term benefits to the national interest. Nor does any other region offer the dynamism and promise of Asia, which officials and scholars predict will be at the center of international affairs for decades to come

While China’s era of incredible growth is finally slowing, the rest of Asia is only beginning to take off. Asia holds more than half of the world’s population and is projected to account for half of its economy by 2050. Southeast Asia in particular holds much of this untapped potential, and four of the ten ASEAN states already rank among the world’s 20 most competitive economies.

With this unparalleled importance in mind, it becomes clear that the rebalance is simply an alignment of American resources and commitments with its interests – and that if anything, criticisms should question if the policy has gone far enough. With a globally integrated economy and worldwide commitments and interests, the United States does not see itself as having the option to neglect such a crucial region.

The rebalancing strategy has also emphasized the importance of improved relations with China. While public statements have often put America and China at odds, particularly over territorial disputes, diplomatic and military coordination have improved considerably. The annual, Strategic and Economic Dialogue receives a great deal of attention, and institutionalizes the frank exchange of positions between the two countries. Communication has been at the heart of American efforts to ease Chinese suspicions. For example, the Administration even privately briefed China on its plans before embarking on President Obama’s 2014 trip to Asia, in which he announced the enhanced defense treaty with the Philippines.

In responding to fears of containment, it is also important to note that a struggling China would be a disaster for America’s economy and interests. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it in 2014,“I worry more about a China that falters economically than I do about them building another aircraft carrier.” The American and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined, and economic turmoil could also provoke political instability in China and East Asia– the last thing the United States would like to see.

Chinese ships expanding land in the South China Sea. Image: Center for Strategic and International Studies

Chinese ships expanding land in the South China Sea. Image: Center for Strategic and International Studies

Beijing may blame America for regional sentiment turning against it, but it would be better served by turning the mirror on itself. China’s policy in the South China Sea has done much more damage to its stature in Southeast Asia than American actions conceivably could. With aggressive expansion, including incursions into both Vietnamese and Philippine Exclusive Economic Zones, China has flouted both regional and international norms and laws. Its inflexible and even threatening rhetoric and diplomacy have only compounded the problem.

Only this behavior can explain why a country like Vietnam has sought greater friendship with the United States, or why ASEAN has pursued greater unity in dealing with other countries. China may well regret its policies in the South China Sea: in pursuit of territorial gains, it has sacrificed regional influence and reputation, thus containing itself.

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The Coming Downturn of China-Vietnam Trade Relations

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I recently had a conversation with a high ranking officer in Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade whose work responsibilities include promoting and facilitating border trade and investment between Vietnam and China.  We have been meeting for years and despite past flareups in the South China Seas and the occasional anti-China rally in Hanoi, he has always expressed optimism toward the future of the China-Vietnam relationship. He has believed that cooler heads will always prevail at the upper levels of government and that the increasing flows in border trade and investment overland between China and Vietnam do much to alleviate the tensions brewing on the seas.  But in my recent meeting, the officer expressed a 180 degree interpretation of the future of trade relations between China and Vietnam.  He fears that as a result of China’s aggressive movements in the South China Sea, the two countries will soon adopt isolationist and protective trade policies toward each other, and the goodwill provided by decades of border trade and shared investment projects will soon become undone. Continue reading

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The anti-Vietnam protest that didn’t happen

Kunming’s Nanping Jie Square, the site of Sunday’s non-protest.

The ringtone on my wife’s cell phone abruptly called us awake at 8:30am on Saturday. The caller ID displayed the name of one of my closest friends and colleagues in Kunming, yet I wondered why he was calling my wife. “Comrade, good morning,” rang out his thick Sichuanese accent.  This was a standard greeting among my circle of friends, but calling someone comrade in China has long gone out of fashion.

“There’s something I have to tell you.”

So it turns out he spent the previous day at his workplace, a local university, holding meetings with top administration and security brass discussing how to prevent the university’s students from attending a protest scheduled for Sunday, the next day. He told me that a group of Vietnam war veterans from China’s 1979 punitive invasion of Vietnam received approval from the local civil affairs bureau and the local public security bureau to march on the Vietnamese consulate in downtown Kunming.  The scheduled march was in reaction to the growing movement of anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam that left more than 20 Chinese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese dead in the previous week.

The starting point was the city’s main pedestrian square at Nanping Street; the march would commence at 9am and finish at 2pm at the consulate.  His call was a warning for me to lay low – for all foreigners to lay low – because foreigners, especially Caucasian foreigners could serve as a potential target for angry, nationalistic protesters.  He was also calling to warn me to stay far away from the protest.  He knew I had a penchant for observing and writing about protests in Kunming, and my actions in the past had landed me and subsequently him only by guilt of association in a little trouble with local security officials.

To help place the gravity of the situation squarely on my shoulders, he told me of how he spent the previous evening having meetings with the students under his supervision, pleading them not to attend the protest – even though it was a legal protest – for fear that it may turn violent or take a turn toward other issues that were suppressed and mulling around in the hearts and on the minds of disgruntled people in Kunming.  In fact, his work group in cooperation with a successful commercial real estate form had arranged a 5 kilometer eco-walk scheduled for Sunday morning, but due to the protest he decided to cancel the event.  His university and the firm apparently poured a good deal of money into the event so he was quite put out by the cancellation.  “Right now, we will do what it takes to ensure stability at any cost.” I had heard those words too many times in the last 18 months living in Kunming.

His parting words before hanging up were also ones familiar to me: “Stay at home and have a good time with your wife.”

This season of South China Sea’s flare-ups and shenanigans is heating up once again.  To provide a quick rundown of the last 10 days: China parks it’s billion dollar oil rig 150 miles off the coast of Vietnam near Da Nang; rams a few curious Vietnamese ships, super soaks other onlookers with high pressure water hoses; foreign ministries respond with sabers rattling; protests broil in Vietnam; Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese factories burn; people die unnecessarily due to this tricky, inane, orderless, yet extremely critical game of cartography, resource grabbing, and interpretation of the current world order.  And to round out the week, the first organized civil response in China comes from….Kunming?

In some ways Kunming makes sense.  The pathway of China’s 1979 spring invasion of Vietnam cut through southeastern Yunnan province into Vietnam’s Lao Cai province.  The three month war was a tough decision for the newly installed Deng Xiaoping.  He sought to punish Vietnam for its humanitarian invasion of Cambodia to take out the Khmer Rouge and install a new caretaker government, in some ways Deng thought this would help make good on his warming commitment to US-China relations.  Many of the troops sent to Vietnam were stationed in Yunnan, Kunming specifically.  Many did not return.  In total approximately 70,000 soldiers and civilians died in the three month conflict.

Both sides claimed pieces of victory.  In the end, China chalked up fewer casualties and proclaimed the incursion’s main purpose was to scare the Vietnamese before retreating.  The Vietnamese army valiantly as always pushed back most of the encroaching forces as the PLA entered the provinces to the north of Hanoi.  The caretaker government in Cambodia was not handed over to the Khmer people 1979.  Officially the caretaker government left in the early 1990s, and some argue that the pro-Vietnamese caretaker government is still in power.  To me a China’s claim to victory holds little water – just like its 9 dash line that lays claim to the near entirety of the South China Sea (which by the way holds a ton of water, fish, and most importantly energy resources.)

But then again there is little about Vietnam’s South China Seas claims that make much sense either.

From my experience interacting with locals, very few Kunmingers, and Chinese people in general, under the age of 50 know the story and context of the 1979 war.   I was not surprised to learn that a group of organized veterans still operated in Kunming given that veteran groups from WWII were still active in Yunnan and much is done in this city to preserve WWII related heritage. But how many were there and how many would show up for the march on Sunday? An organized effort that received government approval and raised the alarms of state related institutions like my friend’s university would likely bring out at least one hundred people. Would they be able to rally more than 1000 Kunmingers under the intense midday sun similar to the anti-PX protests (not government sanctioned) of nearly exactly one year ago?

Would the protesters flip and set cars alight?  Wait, Vietnam doesn’t produce cars.  Would they target people who appeared to be Vietnamese? Wait, I won’t finish that sentence.

On Saturday evening, a crowd of Kunming’s expats gathered for the soft opening of a New York style pizzeria.  The chatter was (sort of) abuzz with talk of the next day’s scheduled march and protest.  Over the previous two days word of the march had spread, for better or worse, among the community via the popular Chinese social media app WeChat, and now the gathering enabled the conversation to go from digital form to the soon-to-be-obsolete vocal communication style characterized by eye contact and hand gestures.

“Did you see how close China’s oil rig is to Vietnam’s shoreline?  It’s totally in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.”

“What’s an Exclusive Economic Zone?”

“Yo, this South China Sea shit’s been going on for years.  All these countries play around with each other like they’re still in middle school.”

“That 9 dashed line just showed up in on China’s official maps in 1954.”

“Why Kunming?”

“Maybe the anti-PXers will show up to the protest again and then it could get really ugly.  Wait…maybe the Uighers will plan another attack?  And do you think things will be different now that Kunming’s police forces can carry armed weapons?  What’s happening to our city?  This used to be a really cool place to live!”

“Those Vietnamese love to play games, they learned how from the Soviets.”

“I’m totally going to wear my bright red “Made in Vietnam” shirt with the big yellow star tomorrow.”

“Maybe that’s not the best idea.”

“What’s an Exclusive Economic Zone? And dude, where’s my beer?”

 

Those who watch the Sino-Vietnamese relationship closely know that the situation is not getting any better despite the rosy accolades of year-on-year bilateral trade increases, strengthened cooperation on the (lately not-so-successful) repatriation of illegal Uighur immigrants from Vietnam back to China, and a new high-speed rail and road network connecting Vietnam to China.  Watching the relationship from Yunnan province only amplifies the growing crevasses.

Looking locally and outside of the South China Sea conflict, foreign direct investment between Yunnan and Vietnam is on the decline and according to the Vietnam Ministry of Industry and Trade office in Kunming, several key Yunnanese invested projects in Vietnam have been put on hold.  Last year Vietnam Airlines suddenly cancelled its daily flight from Kunming to Hanoi.  Two years ago you could readily buy Vietnamese Banh My sandwiches from food carts in downtown Kunming, and now none are to be found.  Enrollments of Vietnamese nationals into Kunming’s university level Chinese language programs are on the decline and are eclipsed by students from Thailand and Laos.  This spring, neighboring Guangxi province closed the border to watermelon imports from Vietnam which gouged prices at home in Vietnam and angered many farmers.

The list goes on, but I must mention that the yearly China-Vietnam Friendship Tennis Tournament which traditionally ushers in Kunming’s Southeast Asia Expo has been suspended for the last two years.  Both sides suspect each other of stacking the line-up with semi-pro players and accuse each other of foul play.

Waking on Sunday morning, the day of the march, I pondered the deterioration of this relationship. It was clear that more were losing than winning, but how many of Kunming’s everyday citizens are directly affected by the recent cooling and would the protesting veterans be able to gather enough onlookers into their fold in order to make an impactful statement?

I also pondered my friend’s advice on whether or not to go observe the march – but only for a few seconds.  With my smart phone charged to the max and ready to live-tweet the march as I had done for the past anti-PX protests in Kunming, I mounted my electric motorbike and made way to the protest zone, picking up a concerned friend along the way.  He promised to help navigate the security arrangements citing experience recently gained on a week-long trip to Pakistan.

I’ve learned in the past 18 months that the signals of a protest in China begin to appear well before arriving on site, and given this sanctioned protest site was staged for the same site as last year’s initial anti-PX protest, I had a well developed strategy to lay low and observe from afar lest I be spotted and photographed by the local security apparatus.  As we approached the downtown pedestrian square at 9:15 just after the march was scheduled to begin, we saw very little increased security presence.  From 100 meters away it was easy to see the center of the pedestrian square was cordoned off by local police forces to create a space the size of two football pitches.  Local police mingled in and out of the zone, and some middle-aged men sat in the shade of some trees on the periphery of the zone.

So far no sign of a protest presented itself.  No banners, no t-shirts, no slogans, no face masks, just a nearly empty square.  In fact, the most conspicuous aspect was the plain clothes policemen scattered around the square.  Always slightly overweight, deep tan, same crew-cut, off-color collared polo, and the signature man bag containing who knows what – the uniform of the Chinese plain clothes policeman is always easy to spot.  I also spotted a fellow blogger sitting in the shade inside the protest zone – his blond locks and European pedigree always stand above the crowd at Kunming’s protests in which he often finds himself smack in the middle of.

There still wasn’t any action, so my friend and I ducked into an adjacent shopping mall and rushed up to the a 2nd floor Starbucks to find a seat on a sofa beside a window overlooking the square.  Needless to say the position of our perch made us feel more like spectators at a sporting event than at China’s first anti-Vietnam protest of the 2014 season.  We were free to comment and tweet at will.  No security forces were going to bother us there.  My VPN was on line and the connection was kicking.

From our bird’s eye viewpoint, we observed a line of ten paddy wagons parked on the southern edge of the square. A small platoon of SWAT police in riot gear made rounds of the square.  Still no protesters.  A WeChat message popped up on my cell phone from the blond blogger sitting inside the zone.  “Situation normal, just loads of police presence, no sign of protesters….Another Kunming couldn’t care less story.”

And that was just it.  Kunming really couldn’t care less.  We estimate that fewer than ten veterans showed up.  Their t-shirts with Chinese flags gave them away.  At about 10:30am, the veterans formed a half-circle in the middle of the square and were escorted around half of the square by uniformed police. Their march lasted less than a minute.  A cameraman from the local television station sitting on a shaded bench missed the procession because his boredom turned to a brief chance to catch a nap.

At 10:45am, the cameraman picked up his bags and went home. Nothing to see here folks.  By 11am the temporary fences were removed, and the pedestrian square exposed to the intensity of the midday sun once again filled with local shoppers making their way through Kunming’s commercial downtown.

I was relieved that nothing happened.  Perhaps word came down from high for the veterans to cool their guns since the Vietnamese government was making good on its commitment to control the anti-Chinese movements and violence within its own borders.  The last thing our little city needs is to have its blue sky reputation tarnished by another incident making the international news and filling the Sinosphere and the South China Seas with flotsam and jetsam.

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Anti-Chinese Protests Shake China-Vietnam Relations

China's oil rig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981, sits 120 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coastline.  Photo: Xinhua.

China’s oil rig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981, sits 120 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coastline. Photo: Xinhua.

Following the deployment by China of an oil rig in disputed waters between China and Vietnam, anti-Chinese riots have swept Vietnam, bringing Chinese-Vietnamese relations to their lowest level in recent years.

The demonstrations started shortly after China moved an oil rig, referred to as Haiyang Shiyou 981, within 120 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam. This position is also 17 nautical miles off of the disputed Paracel Islands.

The Paracel Islands lie at the heart of the controversy over the oil rig. The Paracel Islands are a group of small islands in the middle of the South China Sea with no native population. Both Vietnam and China place historical territorial claims to the islands. Prior to 1974, the islands were controlled by the navies of China and South Vietnam. Following a naval battle in 1974, China took the whole group of islands from South Vietnam.  Following the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam renewed its claim to the Parcels, and the dispute has continued ever since.

The dispute over the oil rig and the Paracels also ties into different interpretations by Vietnam and China over the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which both Vietnam and China are signatories. Vietnam claims that the oil rig falls within the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) granted to it by UNCLOS, and thus violates Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty along with UNCLOS. China claims that it falls within its territorial waters that are adjacent to the Paracel Islands it controls.

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Regardless of the validity of each of the two country’s legal claims, one thing clear through all of these murky interpretations of international law is that the placement of the oil rig has raised significant anger on the Vietnamese side. Vietnam has declared that it will “apply all necessary and suitable measures to defend its rights and legitimate interests.” At the 24th ASEAN Summit in Burma, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung declared that China’s placement of the rig was “brazen”, “ gravely violates the international law”, and that China’s action was “dangerous”.

In response, the Chinese side has been equally provocative. The state-run newspaper Global Times backed “non-peaceful” measures against Vietnam and the Phillipines, said that Vietnam should get a “lesson it deserves to get”, and declared that “many people believe that a forced war would convince some countries of China’s sincerely peaceful intentions”. Meanwhile, the chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Fang Fenghui, declared at a press conference that it was actually the Vietnamese who were being provocative, that the Paracels were “”border territory which has passed down from our ancestors into the hands of our generation – we cannot afford to lose an inch”, ending with “We do not make trouble. We do not create trouble. But we are not afraid of trouble.”

The situation around the rig has only gotten worse since it has been deployed, with both sides claiming the other side has rammed its ships and used water cannons, while the Chinese have deployed ships to protect the rig, and have accused the Vietnamese of erecting barricades and fishing nets around the rig in order to impede the rig.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground on Vietnam has become violent. Anti-Chinese protests have erupted all across Vietnam in response to China’s actions, and the protestors have targeted foreign factories believed to be Chinese, but have also turned out to be Taiwanese, Singaporean, Malaysian or South Korean. More than 400 factories were damaged by the mobs. The casualties resulting from the protests are still unclear with the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirming that two Chinese nationals had been killed, while other sources said that 21 people had been killed. Over 100 are believed injured. China has charted planes and ships in order to evacuate 3000 Chinese nationals in Vietnam.

Photo: Kham/Reuters

Photo: Kham/Reuters

At the time of this writing, it seems that the protests have mostly calmed with over 1400 protestors having been arrested, and Vietnam having deployed massive numbers of security forces throughout the country. However, what’s clear is that the formerly cordial relations between the two states have been seriously damaged, with China’s Foreign Ministry declaring that the violent protests had “undermined the atmosphere and conditions for exchanges and cooperation between China and Vietnam” and that the Chinese side was suspending diplomatic contacts, along with issuing a warning against travel to Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese Prime Minister sent out a mass text message warning people not to participate in the protests, but at the same time calling for Vietnamese to “to boost their patriotism to defend the fatherland’s sacred sovereignty with actions in line with the law”. As Vietnam continues to deal with China, the Vietnamese government will likely remember the consequences if it is seen as being soft on China by the Vietnamese populace. And unless China moves the rig, China has likely just given the US further reason to justify its pivot to Asia.

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