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Dangers on the high seas of East Asia

Tom Plate (Pacific Perspectives)
Filed on August 8, 2010

The Obama administration is raising the US profile in the South China Sea and in the newly troubled seas around the Korean Peninsula.

Its decisions are sound enough, and they have been put forth carefully and with proportionality. But they do entail risks and may test the China-US relationship. This column is meant as a warning signal.

Let’s take a look at the two main aspects of this development.

The first involves South and North Korean waters. These are now bobbing with US and South Korean warships in a military display. This is for the benefit of North Korea, whose navy apparently was the culprit that sank a South Korean vessel in March, killing 46 seamen. The aim is to deter the Communist regime in the north from further foolishness.

The other audience for the military show is the South Korean public. The March sinking of the Cheonan vessel shocked the South Korean public, which expected more retaliatory spunk from its Navy. But now the secret is out: the South Korean military, whatever its virtues, probably is not ready for prime time. It is not ready to run its own show. It still needs the US there helping call the shots.

So there will be a delay for at least a few years in the planned handover of command of forces in the South from the US to the national government of the Republic of Korea (ROK). That development dismays Beijing, greatly preferring a lowering of the American regional profile. But since the Chinese apparently can’t keep their North Korean allies out of trouble, there’s not much they can do about it except complain.

At the same time, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has quietly promised that Beijing will not protect the guilty party, though it claims not to be convinced that the North is the perpetrator (who else could it be? Space invaders!). But so far that is exactly what they have done, watering down a proposed UN Security Council resolution that would otherwise have condemned North Korea for aggression.

In return, though, Beijing has arranged for the immediate resumption of the on-again, off-again Six Party Talks. China is probably more upset about the US naval ships rolling around in the South China Sea, however. This is the second theater where the Obama administration has staged a show.

Earlier in the year Beijing issued a decree, which could be read to suggest that it viewed those seas as virtually its personal pond. The idea sent shudders throughout Asia, especially in Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, with their tinier “fleets.”

These Asian nations have quarrels with China over island territories in these waters and regard the South China Sea as an international commercial highway. So does the US, which has made that point of view plain.

Nobody in the region wants a fight with China, so none of those worried Asian nations are waving American flags to thank President Obama for ordering more ships into that area. But in fact they are pleased by the move – and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s firm resolve at a big regional meeting last month in Hanoi.

The American expression of solidarity strengthens their hand so that the resolution of these island-ownership disputes can be settled through negotiations. Because the South China Sea represents of course waters territorially adjacent to the mainland, China might well go ballistic if it sees US interference. But that would tarnish its image and raise questions about whether its economic rise will be so peaceful, as Beijing has often claimed.

At least now the US is being viewed as helpfully standing up to the Chinese giant that has of late occasionally seemed bullying in manner.

East Asia clearly is at a tipping point. But the proper role of the United States is not to provoke China or violate its true sovereignty but to balance its rising military power.

In recent years China’s naval buildup has been extraordinary and muscles are being flexed. The American balancing on both fronts is an effort to remind the Chinese that they are not the only muscle man on the block.

Handled carefully, the US effort could actually serve everyone’s interest, including Beijing’s. For China is not ready to rule the Pacific unilaterally. That day may come, but it is off onto the far horizon – or at least as long as the US Navy is bobbing around in a friendly and polite manner. Speak softly, someone once famously advised, but carry a big stick.

Tom Plate’s new book, Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew, is on bestseller lists in Asia





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