HONG KONG — The United States has been gravely weakened by its Iraq and Afghan wars and consequent neglect of the strategic importance of East Asia. But two recent moves by Washington — the joint naval exercises with South Korea and a spirited diplomatic defense of the freedom of the South China Sea — have shown a renewed concern with America’s security interests in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Both these actions have been generally well received in the region, but not by China.
America’s military maneuvers with South Korea last week reminded China of the overwhelming naval superiority that the U.S. and its allies still enjoy in the region. Meanwhile, at the meeting last month in Hanoi of the Asean regional forum, which brought foreign ministers from the 10 Southeast Asian nations together with U.S., Chinese and other officials, Vietnam successfully conspired with the United States to get the South China Sea issue back on the table for discussion at international meetings. This annoyed Beijing, which insists on treating disputes over those waters as a series of bilateral issues between itself and other claimants and has reasserted its claims to sovereignty over the sea.
Naturally, Beijing resents interference by a distant power in a region where its influence might otherwise go unchallenged. But China’s military buildup and the increasing pressure it has been putting on its South China Sea neighbors — by frightening oil companies away from exploring off Vietnam, for example — have raised resentment. Although some countries remain reluctant to speak out for fear of offending China, most now worry more about creeping Chinese hegemony than they do about U.S. imperial behavior. Ultimately, many believe Beijing has aspirations to assert a “Monroe Doctrine” to exclude non-regional powers from East Asia.
Not all observers agree that it was wise of Washington and Seoul to respond with a show of force to the sinking — almost certainly by North Korea — of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan. In South Korea opinion remains deeply divided about how best to deal with Pyongyang — with tough talk and more sanctions, or by ignoring its provocations, or by attempting to re-engage in the name of pan-Korean fraternity.
The joint military exercises annoyed China and strengthened its commitment to the North. But Beijing’s support for Pyongyang over the Cheonan incident, coming on top of the North’s continuing nuclear and missile development, has made many South Koreans more wary of China. The once-warming relationship has cooled and many Koreans now worry about becoming too dependent on China trade. Support for Pyongyang has also hurt China’s image in Southeast Asia, where many capitals have close relations with Seoul.
The United States, by declaring in Hanoi that it has an interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the settlement of disputed claims by international law, has put itself firmly in the camp of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and other nations with stakes in the outcome. Although China owns only about one-fifth of the coastline, Beijing claims almost all the islands, resources and navigation rights. It bolsters its claims with a Sino-centric version of history that ignores the fact that ethnic Malay seafarers, the ancestors of today’s Malaysians, Indonesians, Filipinos and the Chams of Vietnam, dominated commerce in those waters centuries before the Chinese.
Vietnam has recently been showing more determination than the other claimants — Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei — to talk back to China, strengthening its island defenses and ordering six submarines from Russia. U.S. power and Vietnamese resolve have now made the other claimants willing to support internationalization of the issue rather than, like the Philippines, be sucked into bilateral discussions and oil exploration joint ventures with China.
Asean itself has proved a poor vehicle for pressing the Southeast Asian claims because only half its members are concerned about the issue. Nor have the claimants shown much willingness to compromise among themselves and present China with a united front. But the Hanoi meeting has again brought the issue to international attention and reminded Japan, Russia and other nations that no one has an interest in seeing Beijing in control of the strategically vital South China Sea.