China sends chilling message to its neighbors
The Kansas City Star
China never tires of lecturing other countries that its rise from poverty to power is a peaceful process and that any attempt to oppose or contain it only betrays a Cold War mentality. If China’s neighbors ever bought the story, they’re not buying it now.
Beijing has become increasingly provocative in pursuing claims in the South China Sea that dismiss the claims of a half-dozen other countries. Earlier this summer, Beijing took the eye-opening step of upgrading a settlement in the Paracel chain to “Sansha City” and announcing it would post a military garrison — a forward-deployed force — on the island.
While other powers in the region have minor military outposts on some of these islands, China’s move upped the ante. Sansha City will be the administrative center for Beijing’s South China Sea claims, which are absurdly expansive and ignore those of other countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia. The Chinese are already parceling out oil and fishing leases inside other countries’ exclusive economic zones.
Washington’s response to all this has been overly low-key. In June, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in Singapore that nearly two-thirds of U.S. naval assets would be concentrated in Asia by 2020. More recently, the State Department said China’s behavior was sending a “seriously wrong signal” to Asia, which would seem like a mild statement, but it triggered a tantrum in Beijing.
The U.S. embassy’s deputy chief was summoned for a dressing-down, and the People’s Daily said Washington should “shut up” and “stop fanning the flames.”
What’s required is a more consistent level of American assertiveness. Two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said competing claims to island chains should be resolved in a multilateral process, not in bilateral talks that would allow Beijing to bully each country in turn. Peaceful settlement in this manner, she said, was in the U.S.“national interest.”
Washington should warn that it will cut off further military-to-military talks unless Beijing provides more details on the size of its Sansha City garrison. Moreover, this might be a good time to announce a small arms deal with Taiwan.
Washington should avoid becoming bogged down in the details of these claims, but it should also do more to reassure Southeast Asian countries that the U.S. won’t stand by as China dismisses their claims and grabs what it wants.