Monday, May 7, 2012

Why There Can’t Be Quiet in the South China Sea

The amphibious ship USS Essex leads a formation of East Asian and United States Navy ships in the Gulf of Thailand, February 8, 2010 Chinese fishermen were caught in waters claimed by the Philippines. The Philippine navy tried to arrest the men but Chinese coast guard intervened, ominously encircling the Philippine warship that had been dispatched to the location. The Chinese fishing vessels subsequently left without the Philippine ship making a move
The island nation isn’t the only one embroiled in maritime border disputes with China. Across the South China Sea, Southeast Asian states claim waters that Beijing insists are its. The United States, seeking to counter China’s rise in the Pacific, are formally neutral in these disputes but regularly participate in joint naval exercises to make clear that they will not tolerate China menacing its neighbors.

Before the Chinese-Philippine standoff, 2011 had gone by without a noticeable incident in the South China Sea region, causing M. Taylor Fravel, who is an associate professor of political science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to write in Foreign Affairs that China was trying to restore its “tarnished image in East Asia” and reduce the rationale for a more active American presence there.

China appeared to realize that its usual brashness, far from compelling neighbors to make concessions, created a shared interest among nations in Southeast Asia “and an incentive for them to seek support from Washington.”
None of that has changed. As the International Crisis Group pointed out in a report (PDF) last month, “Beijing’s shift toward a more moderate approach in the South China Sea in mid-2011 was rooted in the desire to repair some of the damage done to regional relationships that had led to an expanded US role in the region.”
So how to account for the return of what appears to be a confrontational policy?
The think tank observes that there is a divide within the Chinese foreign policy establishment between a civilian government that is timid and military hardliners who insist that China should protect its strategic interests in the region.


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