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Problems relating to the South China Sea have been bubbling below the surface for a long time. However, the public entry of the United States into the arena has brought these problems to the surface.

The South China Sea is now being spoken about in China as a “core interest” of its sovereignty: hitherto the term was confined to Taiwan and Tibet. (It remains unclear whether this is a position that the government will formally adopt). US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in July that, “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

This has inevitably made the South China Sea an issue of major tension between the US and China. Underlying this is the fact that the two powers are geopolitical, and increasingly military, rivals.

The problems also involve Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of whom have claims over parts of the Sea, which stretches from Borneo to Hainan island. The territory only comprises small islands, boulders and strips of sand, but it contains vital shipping lanes. and part may well be rich in oil and gas.

Indonesia through its mission at the United Nations, wrote to a UN commission (“on the limits of the continental shelf”) in July, contesting China’s position on the South China Sea. The letter argues that China’s claim to sovereignty over almost all the sea “clearly lacks international legal basis” and “encroaches [on] the legitimate interest of the global community; This is particularly interesting because Indonesia harbours no claim.

Full access to the Sea is strategically vital for China because it is China’s ‘lifeline’ with its national security and securing of resources at stake. Washington fears Chinese military expansion. Its neighbours also worry about increasing Chinese power. China is concerned, for example, that Vietnam is exploring for oil in disputed waters.

Beijing accuses Washington of seeking to contain China, which of course is American policy. China insists on its “indisputable sovereignty” over the Sea, in the face of neighbouring countries’ claims over the Paracels, the Spratlys, and “all [other] islands inside the U-shaped traditional maritime boundary”.

It is unclear why the problems have become an issue of public diplomacy between the US and China. Are we seeing a flexing of muscles of the two big powers? If so, why at this time and what do Beijing and Washington hope to achieve? The US, knowing of China’s growing naval strength, appears to be sending a clear message to China and its neighbours that China will not be given a free run. China is presumably concerned at this manifestation of US containment policy.

The diplomatic exchanges have taken place against a background of major naval exercises in July by the US with the ROK and by the Chinese Navy. The US/ROK exercises placed the Chinese capital within striking distance of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which was involved in the drill, Chinese military analysts said.

Washington seeks a multilateral approach to the resolution of the disputes. Beijing rejects any internationalisation of the disputes, but says that it wishes to settle disputes “through peaceful and friendly consultations.”

Wise heads in Beijing and Washington will seek to ensure that the dispute remains political, but the behaviour of the two countries does not augur well for the future. Miscalculations and misunderstandings are always possible. Last year, there was a collision between sonar equipment being towed by a U.S. Navy warship and a Chinese submarine near Philippine waters. There could be a worse incident.

It is to be hoped that China and its neighbours will sit down and negotiate. American presence is unnecessary.

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