Fiery Words in the South China Sea


Photo/Flickr: #PACOM
When foreign policy makers analyze a situation they must consider not only what has happened, but also what could happen. So imagine for a minute how Chinese leaders might have responded if Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg had made the following statement after the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan frigate:

“Regarding the role of China in this, it is not directly related to the dispute, so it would be better for China to accept the results of the United Nations investigation and leave the dispute to be sorted out in a multilateral setting. I believe that North Korea is playing with fire, and I hope that China doesn’t get burned.”

China’s leadership might interpret this as American grandstanding, but it is much more likely that they would view it as an aggressive and provocative statement. Moreover, in a tense strategic environment in which alliances could draw the United States and China into a conflict, such a statement could quickly escalate into a game of brinksmanship between two nuclear armed great powers.
It is all the more surprising, then, that China’s vice foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, made a strikingly similar statement on Wednesday. As tensions over the territorial and economic claims to the South China Sea have risen dangerously in the past few weeks, Mr. Cui warned the United States to keep out of the dispute. According to the New York Times, Mr. Cui went on to say that:

“Regarding the role of the United States in this, the United States is not a claimant state to the dispute… So it is better for the United States to leave the dispute to be sorted out between the claimant states… I believe the individual countries are actually playing with fire, and I hope the fire will not be drawn to the United States.”

Tensions in the South China Sea and the sinking of the Cheonan are obviously two different situations. Nonetheless, both the timing and the content of the Vice Foreign Minister’s statement are quite peculiar. Beijing reiterated its commitment not to use force to solve the dispute late last week. However, it also chose to deploy its largest maritime patrol ship, the Haisun 31, and conduct maritime defense exercises in the disputed territory. Whether or not this was justified, given Vietnamese live-fire military drills and accusations that Chinese “fishing boats” destroyed Vietnamese oil and gas equipment, is unclear. What is clear is that China’s military capabilities, its economic weight, and its sheer size mean that it must tread lightly if it does not wish to validate the fears of its neighbors. So far, it is not succeeding.
The South China Sea is only one of several flashpoints in Sino-American relations. But it is a serious one. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared last July that the United States had a “national interest” in freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea. Against this background Mr. Cui’s statement seems needlessly provocative. While it is highly unlikely that the United States would risk an armed conflict with China, negative perceptions of China’s military ambitions can increase pressure on policy makers to “deter conflict” with Beijing. This sets the stage for a classic security dilemma. If China’s leadership is truly committed to a “peaceful rise” they should take more care to watch what they say.
— Jordan D’Amato


5 comments on “Fiery Words in the South China Sea

  1. Don Bacon says:

    The Unites States has a “national interest” everywhere on the planet. Spending $120B this year in a poor, rocky country full of illiterate people on the other side of the planet is a good example. The South China Sea might be another.
    Nice photo of a South Korea warship, apparently representing the puzzling Cheonan reference which I’m still working on.


  2. rc says:

    Artfully done as well imo.
    However, it also opens up the question of a scenario where China is saying much the same as well from their naval base in Cuba back to the US Navy in the Gulf. Basically part of protecting Chinese trade routes with Venezuela and Brazil.
    What’s DC’s response to this scenario?
    Can’t be ‘Bay of Pigs II’ imo.


  3. questions says:

    Totally o/t, sorry for being a serial offender….
    Best reaction to NY legislation eveh!
    Congratulations to all New Yorkers for being legislatively ahead of much of the rest of the country!
    We all (heart) NY!


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