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Regaining Thailand: An Inevitable Challenge for US Policymakers

This article focuses on the political situation in Thailand and the current state of U.S.-Thai relations. Due to the recent Thai military coup in 2014, the relationship between the United States and Thailand has deteriorated in various aspects to the extent that the ex-ASEAN frontrunner seems to have lost its position as a vibrant democracy and human right advocate and a relatively strong U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region. Although it will be an inevitable challenge for U.S. policymakers, to assist Thailand in regaining such position, it is believed that the United States must reverse its policy on the cutbacks in cooperation with Thailand and work with Thai authorities in an attempt to stabilize the political situation and consequently restore democracy to the country.

In elaboration of the above standpoint, this article is divided into three sections. The first section provides background to how the Thai military coup has come to power and of the present state of U.S.-Thai relations followed by a section which describes the significance of Thai political situation to the United States. The last section will be an illustration on a step-by-step procedure recommended to be taken by the United States in order to take Thailand back to its former self as a democratic nation and a U.S. ally.

Background Information

In May 2014, General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in what is now Thailand’s fifth military coup under its current monarch of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Although coups have been frequent in Thailand’s turbulent modern history, the crucial timing and the severity of the junta’s subsequent actions suggest a subterranean ratcheting up of tensions. The backdrop of the coup was six months of street protests by “yellow shirts” which paralyzed the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin Shinawatra is undoubtedly considered a controversial figure in Thailand. During his administration, his populist policies worked in favor of his supporters mostly the lower-class who make up the majority of the Thai population. Despite various attempts by the elites to rid Thaksin of his influence, it was him and his allies that had always won elections on consecutive occasions over the past. Coming with the party’s gain in its popularity among the destitutes was the ascending despite from the the urban middle class, elites and especially the royalists who saw the party and its leader’s popularity and policies as cunning approaches to consolidating power. For the royalists, Thaksin’s legacy and influence was also seen as a threat to the monarchy, who has always maintained outright supremacy in modern times.

A loose group comprising royalists, ultra-nationalists and the urban middle class who disliked Thaksin is known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or the “yellow shirts”. It is well known for its constant rallies of political movements against Thaksin and his allies in politics including his own sister the last democratically elected prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They were behind the huge street protests that led up to both the 2006 military coup, which ousted Thaksin and sent him into exile overseas, as well as the recent one, which deposed his sister from the state’s premiership in similar ways. They are renowned for opposing stance against the “red shirts,” who sided with Thaksin and protested against unelected governments that toppled over him and his successors. For the “yellow shirts” and royalists, the coup was therefore seen as  a showcase of their own achievement after repeated prolonged efforts to eliminate prospects of Thaksin and his successors’ repeat victories in general elections and their returns to political power.

Upon taking power, Prayuth promised to Thai people in what described as return of “sustainable happiness” and laid a “roadmap” to returning the country the democratic ruling

whilst in reality all he and the junta has been committing seems to be of undemocratic nature and against its originally proclaimed plan. To name a few, Prayuth has suspended the democratic constitution, imposed martial law, and dialed back civil liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. Over the past year, more than 1,000 politicians, academics, and journalists have been detained or sent to Thai military facilities for what is called “viewpoint adjustments”, while Yingluck has been put on trial for criminal negligence over alleged graft in a rice subsidy scheme. In April 2015, the junta released the first draft of its new constitution, the real aim of which was branded undemocratic in that it appeared to work against return of  electoral power once wielded by Thaksin Shinawatra to the Thai population. The draft was so unpopular and untrustworthy that it was rejected by the National Reform Council and surprisingly faced opposition from both the Phua Thai and Democrat Parties, the longstanding rivals in Thai politics. In January 2016, the second constitutional draft was launched to the public amidst fear of Meechai Ruchupuan, the official in charge of drawing it up, that it might not resolve long-running troubles and even produce weak civilian governments under the hidden influence of the military. Criticism of the new draft has demonstrated significant flaws in its content which once again bleak the potential of real democracy being returned to the nation. Notwithstanding masses of criticisms, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha remained adamant that the referendum for the draft constitution be held in mid-2017 even without solid guarantee.

As the United States’ oldest ally and a strategic hub to U.S.’ interests in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand’s regressive path cannot be ignored. Thailand is at present a military regime that lacks guarantee of when it will return to civilian rule. Further, it must be noted that elite interests are divergent from the United States’. While the United States, in collaboration with the Asia Pacific region, are expected to strive for bringing back the democratic state in Thailand, the royalists are dreading return of an electoral democracy that brought Thaksin and his successors into power over the past decade. Moreover, they become increasingly hostile with the United States’ signs of growing disapprovals and reactions shown in their curtailment of cooperation with Thai authorities. After Kristie Kenney, the US Ambassador to Thailand, criticized the coup, Thai royalists began a social media campaign calling for the ambassador to be recalled to Washington. Khunying Songsuda Yodmani, the daughter of former pro-US military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn, blasted the United States for ‘meddling’ in Thailand’s affairs and called on the U.S. State Department to “respect its allies and treat them as equals rather than its colonies.”

In the areas of defense and security, the Obama administration suspended more than $4.7 million worth of the unspent FMF and IMET assistance for Thailand. It cancelled high-level engagements, exercises, and a number of training programs with the military and police. Every year, the United States participate in the Cobra Gold, the largest Asia-Pacific military exercise held in Thailand. In the past, the exercise involved many thousands of U.S. and Thai troops and included high-end military operations. In 2015, however, the U.S. military scaled down the Cobra Gold, reducing U.S. troops to just 3,600 and cancelling a large-scale, live-fire exercise associated with amphibious landing. This is not surprising as under prohibitions in U.S. laws, American forces are limited in what exercises they are permitted to conduct with a nation that had overthrown a democratically elected government.

Nevertheless, Thailand, trying to prove its prevailing independence from Western sanctions is embarking on its journey to pursuing bilateral ties with China. To begin with, Thailand’s military junta favors China’s stance on the country’s internal situation. According to the conservative Thai newspaper Naew Na, sources in the Ministry of Defence noted that, “China regarded Thailand’s political problems as an internal issue, and that China would not interfere.” Due to the lack of ideological differences between Thailand and China’s current regimes, Thailand has been working more closely with China. On June 6, 2015, General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that Thailand was now a “partner of China at every level.” Moreover, in January 2015, China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan embarked on a visit to Thailand aimed at boosting Sino-Thai defense relations. For Thailand, securing relations with China is the ruling junta’s way to show Washington that there are alternate partners who are willing to do business with, without fretting about the legitimacy of its rule.

Economically, Thailand’s ruling junta is boosting ties with China as a way to reverse its sluggish growth. In December, Thailand welcomed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the most prominent foreign leader to visit the country since the military seized power on May 22. It was a good opportunity for Thailand to show that Thailand’s political problems are not obstacles to trade, especially since the West has reduced trade ties with Thailand following the coup.

Why Does This Matter?

As the oldest ally to the United States in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand acts as a crucial determinant to the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. While U.S. relations with most countries in Southeast Asia are warming, the United States’ ties with its oldest partner in the region are a critical outlier.

Although it is true that the military junta purposefully took control of Thailand, it must be understood that there is a looming royal succession coming up due to the ailing 87-year-old Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ill-health. For now, the Thai military has assumed political control to ensure it manages the royal succession, whenever that takes place. King Bhumibol guided his people through the tumult that was the second half of the 20th century until today. His death will shake Thailand like nothing has in its modern history, and the Thai military wants to be firmly in charge when that happens, and it is that simple.

In responding to Thailand’s political crisis, the United States must walk a tightrope, balancing consistency in U.S. foreign-policy tenets supporting democracy, human rights and freedom of speech with readiness to deal with deep-rooted consequences of Thailand’s political transition that may arise in the near future. It risks losing serious geopolitical ground if it fails to manage this difficult chapter in Thailand’s political evolution.

Whether or not the junta succeeds in this aim, Prayuth’s “democracy with Thai characteristics” may struggle to bridge his country’s deep political and social divides. American academic David Streckfuss has described his rule as a throwback to Thailand’s “golden age of military dictatorship” during the Cold War. Particularly, it overlooks the rising political expectations of the Thai people. “This is not the same Thailand as 1958, 1976, or 1991,” Streckfuss writes. “And neither are the Thai people the same. Democracy in Thailand may not be inevitable, but its chances are considerably higher than successfully putting the genie of political consciousness back in the bottle.” In other words, Prayuth may find the Thai people growing restless provided that not much has been done to bridge the divides. Meanwhile, the United States has an interest in seeing democracy return to Thailand as rapidly as possible. The U.S. must therefore act as a mediator ready to handle the consequences that may arise from Thailand’s political crisis.

What Should The United States Do?

For now, it is unlikely that Thailand will have real elections until the succession has taken place, which could be several years from now. Moreover, the draft constitution currently being circulated falls short of what would be considered as democratic. The presented charter contains provisions for a new senate where the junta would appoint all 250 members and leave six seats open for the heads of the armed forces. This appointed senate would also check the power of lawmakers during the five-year transitional phase, which allows the junta, and not civilians, to both determine both the senate body and the laws. Further, the new prime minister could be selected if over 250 members of parliament support the motion and if it subsequently approved by a joint session of the lower house and the appointed senate. This would allow the junta-controlled senate, and not the citizens to choose their leader, and would arguably allow junta leaders like Prayuth to prolong his premiership. In addition, the revamped constitution may allow a planned National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee – nicknamed the “crisis panel” – to seize all executive and legislative power from the government and parliament in an emergency. An unelected “outsider” could become prime minister, endorsed by parliament, if a “crisis” arises, and critics fear that pro-junta outsiders will be boosted to become premier. Additionally, the Constitutional Court will continue to decide the fates of politicians who fall afoul of the charter’s laws or if a “crisis” remains unresolved. During the past decade, that Constitutional Court ruled against several elected politicians, effectively ending their careers. Essentially, this constitution will provide the junta a supreme right to prevent the sort of electoral democracy that brought Thaksin and his allies to power, contrary to popular 1997 constitution that the junta canceled after a 2006 coup.

The U.S. government must be strategic. Taking lesson from the hostilities that the Americans faced after the previous U.S. ambassador Kristie Kenney staked out hardline against the coup, Washington must urge the current ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies to be cautious, moderate and take a more nuanced approach towards protecting U.S. interests. Meanwhile, Davies must be urged to continue negotiating with Thai authorities. His team should consult with the military and various stakeholders, in order to deepen understanding of U.S. concerns and listen to perspectives of the key players in the political drama that has engulfed the kingdom. Further, to restore democratic hopes, Davies’ team must also pressure the junta to amend the new draft through diplomatic pressures and negotiations. It must uphold the principle that the constitution follows international guidelines, respects the choice of citizens and not the military officials over their premier. At this point, there were numerous politicians and civilians who were detained over their criticisms of the new draft; the U.S. government must assert the fact that their opinions must be respected. Beyond that, it should pressure the Thai government to end the use of military tribunals to try civilians, and amend or revoke the penal code article 112 on lese-majeste and release those who are convicted under that article.

Thailand’s relations with China have long been strong and it seems that Beijing incrementally steps up its ties with the Thai military every time Washington pulls back. Washington must therefore find ways to demonstrate that it remains a friend of Thailand and not turn its back on the country when politics enters a rough patch. One idea would be to establish a private eminent persons’ group of senior former U.S. foreign-policy officials, experts and business leaders that could meet influential Thais on a regular basis to discuss the future of Thai-U.S. relations, for example, five years down the road.

In the areas of defense and security, Washington can reverse its cuts to military cooperation, but with limits. First, it can continue its full complement of joint military exercises. Second, the U.S. should prepare to hit the ground running with resumption of full military-to-military contact, to include the doubling of IMET assistance. Nonetheless, Washington should also condition that Thailand will only receive full military cooperation if it is progressing towards the democratic path and take into account the human rights of its citizens, through Ambassador Davies’ use of continued diplomatic pressure and negotiations. This way, the U.S. will be able to both improve its ties with Thailand and at the same time ensure that Thailand is walking the right way.

Bangkok hosts one of the largest U.S. embassies in the region, and this serves as the base for a raft of U.S. activities in Southeast Asia including regional headquarters for narcotics addiction, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If the military continues to delay elections and tighten control on civil society, it would not be safe for these institutions and operations to be solely based in Bangkok, as it would allow the junta to jeopardize U.S. interests, institutions and operations. However, rather than completely relocating these activities, which would strain U.S.-Thai relations even further, a good option will be to disperse these interests throughout Southeast Asia, which would not only protect U.S. interests, but would also allow it to better deal with Thailand. For example, the U.S. could enlarge its embassies throughout the region and establish second offices for these activities in countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, for a different set of reasons. U.S.-Vietnam relations in recent times have been improving and strategic; establishing offices in Vietnam will not only allow the U.S. to handle more closely mainland Southeast Asian issues, but will also increase its leverage over the ongoing disputes with China in the South China Sea, a sea crucial to maritime trade. As for Singapore, the island nation’s political stability, development and hub location in Southeast Asia allows it to serve as a haven for U.S. interests to be well-maintained and not be threatened.

Moreover, an important way to regain Thailand is by increasing engagement with nearby countries, which has already been happening. For example, the U.S. could work towards the development and democratization of Thailand’s neighboring countries Lao, Cambodia and Myanmar, in case it will have any spillover effects to Thailand in the future. Having recently gone through a dramatic political transition from a military dictatorship to a democratic regime, working with Myanmar will give hope. Another very important country the U.S. should work very closely with is Indonesia, a regional leader, stable democracy and home to the headquarters of ASEAN, the political and economic organization of ten Southeast Asian countries. First, more diplomatic activities in Indonesia will allow the United States increased presence over ASEAN regional institutions to influence the dynamics and affairs of Southeast Asia as a region. Second, with Indonesia on its side, the U.S. will be able to utilize Indonesia’s power in Southeast Asia to push Thailand and other countries in the region to embrace democratic transitions and human rights. It would not be a quick process, but working with neighboring countries will gradually press Thailand to democratize in the long-run.

After all it is worth noting that there exists remarkable prospect of Thai’s current political status being overlooked by the United States amidst the rising of some neighboring countries on the ASEAN political and diplomatic platform. There also arises a concern that this may steer away the United States’ attention from assisting Thailand in gaining back democracy and basic human rights. Among a few countries is Myanmar which has recently gone through a massive political upheaval from the dictatorship to democratic regime and coming with their newly-acquired democracy is evidence of China’s attempt to secure the top alliance position via its economic collaboration plan and policies with the country. Confining its attention to a small group of the Asia Pacific countries may do the United States more harms than goods. Hence it is crucial that the United States never loses sight of maintaining a good balance of power through its public relations and diplomatic exercises throughout the Asia Pacific region.

This op-ed, written by a concerned Thai citizen, is posted anonymously.

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

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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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Gary Locke, US Ambassador to China visits Kunming one day after announcing resignation

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US Ambassador to China Gary Locke paid his third visit to Yunnan province on Thursday, November 21, one day after the announcement of his unexpected resignation.  His visit was part of an investment promotion roadshow entitled “The Best of America” traveling around China’s southwestern provinces and organized by the US consulates in Chengdu and Guangzhou.  The event was hosted by provincial vice-governor Gao Feng and attended by Yunnanese business interests and officials from the provincial international trade promotion department, tourism department and public health departments.   Core economic strengths of the US were represented by CEOs and officers of Deliotte, GE, Motorola, CISCO systems, Intel, and Miller Canfield Law firm in addition to other firms.  United Airlines was also in attendance and eager to promote its new direct flight from Chengdu-San Francisco opening early 2014.

Opening remarks were given by both Ambassador Locke and Vice Governor Gao. Both speeches highlighted the United States’ and Yunnan’s shared history of cooperation through the Flying Tigers, as well as the need for present day economic cooperation. In his remarks, Ambassador Locke boasted of the increase of China-to-US FDI under his tenure. In the past 21 months, investments from China totaled USD 18 billion, more than the past 10 years combined, an accomplishment Locke can only take partial credit for, as larger macroeconomic trends in the US and China were also important factors. Locke was also able to highlight the increase of Chinese students in the US in recent years. According to the ambassador, the number of Chinese students in the US reached 280,000 in 2012. In addition, Ambassador Locke was also able to point to decrease in wait time for US visas and a new, expanded visa office at the Chengdu consulate as notable achievements under his tenure.  Aside from pushing investment in America, Locke also promoted core American values like legal transparency, free trade and intellectual property rights, issues that have been divisive for the two countries in past years.

Photo courtesy of Allie Horick

Photo courtesy of Allie Horick

Speaking directly after Ambassador Locke, Yunnan’s Vice Governor Gao Feng also promoted bilateral trade and cooperation. In his remarks, Vice Governor Gao emphasized Yunnan’s role as China’s gateway to South Asia and Southeast Asia and its fast pace of the its economic growth. Gao pointed to the recent China-South Asia Expo as a marker of Yunnan’s rise in national and regional importance. The US delegation noted that Locke’s visit to Yunnan went very smoothly and all requests for visits to companies and government ministries were granted, including a visit to Yunnan University, where the Ambassador met with students and professors. This is in contrast to the difficulty encountered when US delegations request access in other provinces and autonomous regions in southwest China, particularly Tibet.

The roadshow was planned with the specific purpose of promoting Chinese FDI to the US, the export of medical technology to Yunnan’s developing healthcare sector, and tourism to the US.  After the Green Lake Hotel event, the delegation met mostly with potential investors from the agriculture and mining sectors reflective of these two sectors as two core pillars of Yunnan’s economy – tourism.  Locke also encouraged US investment in Yunnan tourism management systems – something sorely needed in Yunnan, and China at large, as localities struggle to protect cultural capital bases and natural endowments from the damaging onslaught of mass Chinese tourism.

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The inability of Yunnan’s medical infrastructure to keep up with the demand for medical services was apparent when the delegation was shown MRI scanner purchased from the US that had been use for 10 years at the Kunming Number One Hospital.  The machine was being used 70-80 times per day non-stop for seven days per week.  Cumulative cost of parts and supplies maintenance, all imported from the US, had greatly exceeded the original cost of the machine.

Lastly, Chinese tourism to the US was high on the list of promotion for the delegation.  In 2012, tourism to the US was the US’s top service sector export with Chinese tourists leading the way in number of tourists visiting the US in a by country breakdown.  In international trade accounting, foreign tourist visits are counted as an export due to the positive accumulation of foreign income.

Locke’s visit is recognition of the fruits of the China’s Western development program – namely economic progress to the degree that US investors are now drawn to the fast growth rates coming out of China’s southwestern provinces.  And as a result of that economic progress, Yunnanese investors have reached levels of wealth garnering capabilities to invest in the US, half a globe away.  His visit is also reinforcement of Yunnan’s strategic location as a gateway for regional investment to Southeast Asia and South Asia – a key point mentioned by both the US delegation and the provincial hosts.

Later in the day, Locke’s diplomatic rock star status was confirmed by an exuberant crowd of students at Yunnan University proud of their shared heritage with the US ambassador.  Locke returned that exuberance with hugs.   With Locke stepping down it may be a while until another US ambassador to China receives the kind of welcome received in Thursday in Yunnan.

Consensus among some of the ExSE members is that Locke may be stepping down in preparation for a high appointment related to the 2016 presidential election.  He is an extremely successful career politician with experience managing Americans’ most important bilateral relationship, domestic economic and international trade relations as US Commerce Secretary, and a successful run as governor of Washington State.  This portfolio positions Locke as a strong candidate for VP or Secretary of State under a future Democratic presidency.  Gary Locke will step down as US Ambassador to China early 2014 after taking up the post in August, 2011.

 

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