Choppy diplomatic waters of the South China Sea
The Kansas City Star
The trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was somewhat short of a roaring success. On the thorny issue of competing regional claims to groups of tiny islands in the South China Sea, both China and the United States stuck to earlier positions.
China obdurately claimed sovereignty over the islands and “their adjacent waters” in a region believed to harbor substantial reserves of oil and natural gas. In other words, Beijing simply brushes aside the claims of Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia. Beijing has gone so far as to upgrade the status of a small settlement in the Paracel Islands and plans to post a military garrison there.
The Chinese have already begun parceling out oil and fishing leases in the area, even though this encroaches on the exclusive economic zones of neighboring countries.
The U.S. position is that while it remains neutral on particular claims, the issues should be settled in a multilateral process. Beijing would prefer to deal with each country in bilateral talks, which would allow it to intimidate claimants one by one.
The U.S. is keenly interested in maintaining free navigation in a region critically important to American trade.
Despite the overall lack of movement, there was a ray of hope. Washington suggested that the parties agree to a code of conduct, and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said his government would “work toward” such a document “on the basis of consensus.”
What that might mean to the Chinese in practice is anyone’s guess, but this was a small sign of progress on an issue that Washington has allowed to fester far too long.