Less Passive Response Expected from U.S. on South China Sea Dispute

When the China National Overseas Oil Corp. (CNOOC) started drilling in Vietnamese-claimed waters in the early days of May, the tension within the region over the contested territories grew far more dangerous than what has come before.

Amid the growing dispute within Southeast Asian neighbors over maritime boundaries, the United States is urged to demonstrate a more confronting move against the bully China. In a May 16 published print on the Opinions section  of the Washington Post written by Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi, U.S. is called upon to act on China’s destabilizing and unilateral efforts in asserting its claims in the South China Sea. Though US have repeatedly stressed its commitments to allies and friends in Asia, it also said it will not take sides on the sovereignty claims and called for a peaceful resolution of the matter.

At an Asia-Pacific security forum held in Singapore on May 31, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel addressed a warning to China should international rules and standards be violated. “The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged,” said Hagel.

Such pronouncement drew angry reactions from the Chinese, describing the speech as full of hegemony, full of incitement, threats, intimidation. In response, China suspended its participation in a U.S.-China Cyber Working Group, and released a report accusing U.S. of conducting unscrupulous cyber espionage towards them.

Apart from the several anti-China riots in several parts of Vietnam, there is an escalating standoff near the CNOOC oil rig in the contested waters. Ramming incidents involving boats from both sides has been all over news. Reports cited how Chinese warships showed aggressiveness and pointed weapons at Vietnamese vessels.

Many are convinced that massive oil and gas deposits are locked beneath the 1.4 million square miles South China Sea bordered by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – all claiming parts of the sea. It is believed that within these contested territories are as much as 400 billion barrels of oil.

The illegal installation of this oil rig is a huge contrary to Beijing’s insistence that strong relations within the region are its top foreign policy priority. It also calls into question China’s commitment to its current working-group talks with Vietnam on joint resource development in the South China Sea. Vietnam has reiterated its commitment to a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

But it doesn’t take much to see that China isn’t reciprocating. Although the United States does not have a treaty obligation to defend Vietnam, its rebalancing to Asia is premised on its role as the primary guarantor of stability in the Pacific, and China’s provocative actions towards its neighbors clearly challenge that.

With that, U.S. should be prepared to offer support to Vietnam through an increased naval presence to help de-escalate the situation and at the same time allow Washington to assess China’s capabilities. Indeed, the United States should indeed begin giving life to its rhetorical statements.


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