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Jul 30, 2010 | 11:06 GMT

5 mins read

The South China Sea and American-Chinese Tensions

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
More signs of rising tensions between the United States and China emerged Thursday. Chinese state press revealed that the People's Liberation Army-Navy conducted live-fire naval exercises in the South China Sea on July 26. The exercises involved a large force of warships, submarines and aircraft, including guided missile strikes, anti-missile air defense drills and accompanying aircraft maneuvers. It was the latest exercise the Chinese have conducted since last week's two drills in the Yellow Sea and last month's drill in the East China Sea, all following a dispute between China and the United States over the U.S.-South Korea joint anti-submarine warfare exercises in the Sea of Japan. The U.S.-Korean exercises were meant to demonstrate unity in the face of North Korea's alleged surprise attack on South Korea in March, but the possibility of increased U.S. presence and activity in the waters near China's strategic core triggered an adverse response. The several Chinese naval maneuvers and viscerally negative rhetoric in state press and official statements reveal the nation's anxiety at being pressured on all three of its major maritime borders — the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea and the East China Sea. The U.S. moves on the Korean peninsula are only one cause of stress. China has recently been asserting sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with a number of other nations. These claims were met with a recent counter by the United States, which is attempting to re-ensconce itself in a region that it effectively abandoned after the Cold War. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized while visiting Vietnam last week, Washington is interested in taking an active role in international mediation of territorial disputes in the sea. Beijing refuses to accept internationalization of these disputes, as they are arguments Beijing could more advantageously bring against one neighbor at a time, rather than against all neighbors at once backed by the world's supreme naval power. Adding to the burden of dealing with the United States, Beijing has seen Japan — its chief regional rival — also chime in. Tokyo backed the U.S. proposal on the South China Sea, observed the U.S.-Korean exercises and is reviewing its national defense program to bulk up its submarine fleet and forces in the Ryukyu Islands in specific reaction to any potential threat from China. Moreover, the United States is continuing to raise its level of expectations for China. On Thursday, Robert Einhorn, the State Department's adviser on nuclear non-proliferation, testifying before the House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, pointed to China as a major obstacle to the success of U.S. sanctions against Iran for its opaque nuclear program. He said China recently has been taking up the slack left by countries that have dropped business and trade ties with Iran in adherence to the sanctions — namely by exporting gasoline to Iran, investing in its energy sector and providing financial services. Einhorn said China would be the "focus of very high level attention over the next weeks and months" due to its role in helping Iran avoid the effects of sanctions. The United States is also beginning the process of pressuring East Asian firms, especially banks, to adhere to sanctions against North Korea. This is another area where China does not hesitate to pursue its interests and is even less likely to capitulate to foreign demands. So from the U.S. point of view, China currently is undermining two of Washington's initiatives against nuclear proliferation and against regional imbalances that would be detrimental to U.S. interests, not to mention U.S. dissatisfaction over other aspects of its relationship with China. The United States is continuing to raise its level of expectations for China. At this juncture it is worth mentioning Chinese meetings with the North Koreans. In recent days, China's Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue took a delegation to Pyongyang, and Ambassador to Pyongyang Liu Hongcai signed an economic and technological agreement with the North. While these visits could be seen as an indication of continued defiance of U.S. attempts to heap reproach on North Korea, rumors have also circulated that Beijing is offering Pyongyang additional aid if it agrees to rejoin the so-called Six Party Talks on ending its nuclear weapons program. Few details are available with which to surmise the nature of the talks (and a resumption of Six Party Talks would be limited in utility anyway), but it is by no means unusual for Beijing to try to rein in Pyongyang when it becomes more of a liability than an asset. Beijing will seek ways to relieve the dissonance with the United States when things appear on the verge of a negative spiral, although its ability to compromise is increasingly constrained by its material needs — which are growing along with its economy, military and international influence — and the regime's desire to maintain international credibility and not appear weak before its populace. The broader problem for Beijing is that its regional self-assertion is beginning to attract attention from foreign rivals, especially the United States, which will only become more active in the region as it draws down forces in the Middle East. China's attempt to become the chief power in the South China Sea runs counter to the United States' strategic goal of maintaining dominance over the world's waterways, not to mention creating friction with all the states that claim sovereignty in the sea or rely on it as an intersection for their crucial economic supplies, such as Japan. Beijing has verbally elevated the sea to the level of a "core" national interest, but now that claim is being put to the test in the real world of geopolitics.

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