US-China rivalry could worsen East Sea situation: analysts

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (R) receives a lei as he arrives at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii on May 30. Panetta is on a trip to Asia that will include stops in Singapore, Vietnam and India. The US and China's continued competition for the "˜hearts and minds' of the Asia-Pacific countries could exacerbate tensions in a region rattled by renewed spats over competing sovereignty claims in the East Sea, analysts said.

US cranks up military support for Asia-Pacific countries and so does China, sowing worries of an ASEAN divided along pro-US and pro-China lines

The US and China's continued competition for the "˜hearts and minds' of the Asia-Pacific could exacerbate tensions in a region rattled by renewed spats over competing sovereignty claims in the East Sea, analysts said.

In the face of China's growing military might, some Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members who have territorial claims in the resource-rich and strategically important East Sea also known as the South China Sea have welcomed the US stepping up its presence in the region. But others have worried that the US-China rivalry could jeopardize ASEAN credibility to approach the South China Sea issue collectively as a region and thus threaten stability in the 10-member bloc.

"Increased US military support to its treaty allies, especially the Philippines, would embolden the latter to pursue more aggressive foreign policy toward China, which could escalate tensions," said Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, a maritime security analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"Some ASEAN states, especially Indonesia and Malaysia, are apprehensive toward the possibility that such action could make ASEAN divided along pro-US and pro-China lines," Supriyanto told Vietweek.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on the eve of a trip to Asia that will include stops in Singapore, Vietnam and India that the US would renew its naval power across the Asia-Pacific region and stay "vigilant" in the face of China's growing military, AFP reported. He told US Naval Academy graduates in Annapolis, Maryland that one of their key responsibilities would be "sustaining and enhancing American strength across the great maritime region of the Asia-Pacific," Panetta said Tuesday (May 29).

Reuters reported Wednesday that Panetta will brief allies on the strategic US shift toward Asia and will seek to allay concerns that fiscal uncertainty could undermine Washington's commitment to the effort as he begins a week-long visit to the region this weekend. The trip is Panetta's first to the Asia-Pacific area since the Pentagon issued new strategic guidance in January calling for a shift in focus toward the region, creating "news and buzz" about the concept, the newswire quoted a US defense official as saying.

With the US having been in the Asia-Pacific for decades, "this is just the latest in a long train of statements and actions that indicate that the US realizes that it is in competition with China for power and influence in the region," said Mark Valencia, a maritime analyst in Hawaii and a leading expert on East Sea disputes.

"This political struggle between two elephants is likely to intensify and significantly influence the region's politics and the South China Sea situation," Valencia told Vietweek.

Fickle friendship?

China and four ASEAN members including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim territory in the South China Sea. China's claim is the largest, covering most of the sea's 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), a move that has been emphatically rejected by international scholars.

The area is thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place China, the Philippines, Vietnam and other claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar. It is the shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and straddles shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East. More than half the globe's oil tanker traffic passes through it.

A slew of squabbles between China and ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea have prompted protracted negotiations on a formal code of conduct. In 2002 the parties involved issued a Declaration of Conduct (DOC) and China finally agreed last July to guidelines for its implementation, saying it was open to "different formulas and initiatives."

But ASEAN has remained at odds over the drafting of the code. Some are urging the regional body to first agree on a common position before meeting with China, but others argue Beijing should be involved from the start.

Capitalizing on this, Beijing has always been against internationalizing the dispute and has instead preferred a bilateral approach to the issue.

Analysts said China has sought to curry favor from ASEAN allies in a bid to prevent the bloc from finding a united stance against it.

On Monday, one day ahead of a meeting of regional defense ministers in Phnom Penh, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and his Cambodian counterpart Tea Banh signed a US$20 million military assistance package. Cambodia, which holds the rotating chair of ASEAN this year, had pulled the South China Sea issue off the agenda of a two-day ASEAN leaders' annual summit that opened in early April in Phnom Penh, even before Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the country on a trip in which he vowed to double bilateral trade with Cambodia to US$5 billion by 2017.

"China rarely puts conditions on its aid in contrast to the US, Japan, Australia and many other foreign donors," said Carl Thayer, a Canberra-based analyst. "China is therefore an attractive partner to countries like Cambodia that resist foreign conditionality on their assistance programs," he said.

Also on Monday, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi arrived in Singapore for a two-day visit. Singapore, an American "strategic partner" who has cautioned the US against using extreme anti-China rhetoric in the domestic political debate this election year, is hosting the annual 11th Asia Security Summit, dubbed the Shangri-La Dialogue, on June 1-3. The South China Sea dispute and the US role in it are both set to top the agenda of the meeting, which brings together top defense officials from 28 Asia-Pacific countries, as well as officials from Britain, France, Russia and the US.

Analysts said Beijing may have realized that its approach toward the South China Sea would jeopardize its charm offensive, so it wants to find partners in ASEAN to maintain its image as the bloc's benign partner. But there must come a point where the Chinese approach has its limits, they added.

"China can be very fickle if its national interests change," Thayer said. "For example, China once supported the Khmer Rouge. It abandoned them after the political settlement in Cambodia was reached and threw its support to the Hun Sen regime."

The US had also backed the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese after losing the Vietnam War.

China and the Philippines agreed to show restraint in their tense standoff over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea on Monday. The stalemate has entered its seventh week since early April, when Chinese vessels prevented a Philippine Navy ship from arresting Chinese fishermen.

But analysts are not sanguine over the deal.

"The absence of hot conflict does not automatically mean the presence of peace," said Benjamin Ho, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "There are some fundamental interests that both countries would still have to reconcile with each other."

Among those who believe that the US-China rivalry will just undermine ASEAN's attempts to maintain control of regional security management, perhaps Valencia, the Hawaii-based expert, summed it up best.

"Indeed, ASEAN's method of decision-making based on consensus, consultation, and proceeding in a step-by-step manner may not be appropriate for dealing with this big power rivalry," Valencia wrote in a recent Op-Ed for The Straits Times.

"And as China's military might grows and the US steps up its involvement in the region, the window of opportunity for peaceful settlement of the South China Sea disputes is closing."

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