By Patricia H. Kushlis
At the Santa Fe World Affairs Forum’s symposium “Our World in Ferment” on April 17, China expert and Deputy Director of the Kissinger Institute for US-China Relations Douglas Spelman described the change in US policy direction in Asia over the past 18 months as more of a pivot towards Southeast Asia as opposed to one directed at the continent’s North where US attention has been fairly constant, and intense, for some time.
On the April 23 international news, a BBC correspondent reporting from the island of Palawan near where US and Filipino forces were engaged in Balikatan, the bilateral annual war game exercises held under the Mutual Defense Treaty, reported on the heating up of military tensions between China and the Philippines over who controls what in the South China Sea. An aside: Palawan is an island where I once spent a week at a charming ecotourism resort a year after the US bases had been kicked out of the Philippines by one vote in the Philippine Senate.
Believe me, the reporter has a pretty cushy observation perch from which to observe military exercises as well as snorkel on the side.
A Chinese Lake? Maybe not
The Chinese consider the South China Sea a Chinese lake – made more valuable through exploration by international companies for likely oil and gas under the seabed. Palawan is, by the way, just south of the South China Sea. A BBC report argues that it is precisely because the Filipinos and Vietnamese have signed contracts with international companies to explore for those riches in the disputed territorial waters they claim as their own that set the Chinese off.
The area in contention is called Scarborough Shoal. The Schoal lies within the broader area known as the Spratly Islands, tiny basically uninhabited dots in the sea.
The rationale for the US pivot towards Southeast Asia has centered on keeping the sea lanes open. This is part of long standing US security policy in the region. What’s new is the Chinese challenge to it. Most of the shipping to North Asia passes through the Straits of Malacca then northward through the South China Sea. The claims by Asian nations for control of their pieces of this sea bed off the coasts of southern China, Vietnam and the Philippines have been fuses waiting for a match for years.
With China’s economic rise, it’s increasingly heavy handed approach to Southeast Asia has become more pronounced. On the one hand, Chinese leverage is major in the areas of trade and economics where China has become the region’s dominant trading partner. This is not necessarily bad for the US. When I lived in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s, the Japanese were economically dominant in the region but that trade dominance did not negatively impinge upon the freedom of navigation through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore or the South China Sea.
On the other hand, a deeply held fear of China’s growing security desires has sent ASEAN governments scurrying to find protection from other big powers further away. The US is the obvious choice despite a residue of anti-American anti-colonialism in the Philippines and the mistakes of the Vietnam War – both of which seem to have been all but forgotten or at least, in the face of their larger concern, brushed under the carpet for now.
China needs to understand that despite America’s problems, the US intends to continue to defend its security position on the waterways that lap Asia’s coast.
Furthermore, for China to claim supremacy over all of Southeast Asia stretches credibility. When did China rule the Philippines? Trade goes back centuries but rule never.
From 1521 to 1898 the Philippines were under the Spanish flag. And from 1898 to 1946 they were America’s only colony. The saying: 350 years or so in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood pretty much sums it up.
After Philippine independence in 1946, the US kept military bases in the country until 1992 and even after the US troop withdrawal in October the long standing mutual defense treaty has remained in force.
Vietnam, the other major Southeast Asian country in the spotlight, has never taken kindly to Chinese dominance - fighting war after war against Chinese military forces. The most recent ones have related directly to unsettled border disputes. Perhaps a much earlier millennium of early Chinese rule still rankles - but the Vietnamese have prefered to go their own way for centuries.
The latest armed battle between the two was reportedly in 1988 – a naval battle that occurred just off the Spratly Islands – but a major war between China and Vietnam was fought as recently as 1979.
Last week, much was made in the US media about the disappearance and reappearance of Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese human rights activist, from house arrest. Chen is the blind legal activist, persecuted by the Chinese government for his human rights activism, who sought refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing.
Far too much has also been made about how his handling on the part of the US could impact negatively on the US-China talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based Christian human rights group ChinaAid claims that how the US handles Guangcheng will be a “pivotal moment for US human rights diplomacy.” Well maybe - but it takes two, as they say, to tango or tangle and if neither side wants to scuttle the talks - and I don't think they do - ways will be found to diffuse the situation.
These talks focus on issues like trade, currency appreciation, Iran sanctions and North Korea according to The Washington Post – and I suppose a high visibility human rights case might upset the applecart in the short run. But frankly, human rights issues – with the exception of the Jackson-Vanick Amendment that played havoc with US policy towards the Soviet Union and is still a thorn in US Russian relations – tend to run on a different tracks from other issues of national importance. They are only the straw that breaks the camel’s back when countries, including the US – are looking for ways to break off negotiations in the first place.
When there's a will, there's a way
Seems to me the onus for whatever happens to Chen depends more on how the Chinese decide to pursue that problem than on the US. The easy way out would be to agree to let him leave more or less quietly for residence in the US. My guess is that’s what will happen. Foreign exile is a time honored way to deal with dissidents. Today thanks to modern communications it does not mean their ignominious disappearance - if it ever did - despite government controls over freedom of the Internet.
As former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said at the Council on Foreign Relations June 18, 2008 in response to a question from Garrick Uttley over US policy on illegal immigration "if you build a 12-foot wall pretty soon you'll have 13-foot ladders because of the enormous economic strain of many of these individuals living with their families."
Substitute insatiable quest for knowledge for combating economic strain and you've got a similar situation with the Chinese today.
It also seems to me that both Chinese and American diplomats and trade negotiators are adult enough that they see beyond an individual human rights case. If not, then something is seriously wrong not only with the relationship but also with the competence of the people involved in the negotiations on both sides.
Meanwhile back to the South China Sea.
The devil is not, in fact, in the details. This is all about long standing US national security policy colliding with a resurgent power in the Pacific combined with smaller countries looking for countervailing great power protection against that larger neighbor.
That America is once again pivoting in the Southeast Asia direction should come as no surprise. It was bound to happen. The question was when not whether – and what the trigger would be.