Wednesday May 27, 2020


August 15, 2014

A recent US proposed moratorium on construction in the disputed areas of the South China Sea was reiterated at this week’s gathering of regional foreign ministers in Myanmar to send a signal to China and other Southeast Asia claimants. The proposal comes at a time when President Obama’s foreign policy is under heavy criticism as becoming more hands-off, even from those once close to the administration, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Even if not adopted, the proposal helps to visibly harden Obama’s commitment to the Rebalance policy and US regional allies and partners as China increasingly asserts its control over disputed territories in the South China Sea.

China currently claims 90 percent of the area of the South China Sea as its Exclusive Economic Zone (Taiwan’s claims largely coincide with Beijing). Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia have competing claims with China and with each other. $5 trillion in maritime trade passes through the South China Sea every year. The Sea is also home to rich fishery stocks and is believed to contain significant oil and gas deposits. Clashes between the Philippines and China have made headlines for many years, but lately, Vietnam’s relationship with China has also started to suffer from chronic tension, which came to a head after China’s planted an oil rig at Vietnam’s doorstep unannounced earlier this year. China recently withdrew the oil rig, coinciding with the meeting in Myanmar, but Vietnam remains wary of China’s long-term intentions.

The US State Department first proposed that claimant nations freeze the construction of new outposts and the expansion of existing ones in the South China Sea on July 11th. The previous day the US Senate had passed a resolution urging all nations in the region to refrain from destabilizing activities. The proposal and resolution came after China’s building activities were fueling already heightened tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines. This week, the US decided to push its proposal, backed by Australia and other nations, at the gathering of ASEAN+ foreign ministers in Naypyidaw. The State Department also said it will continue to monitor the disputed areas of South China Sea for actions to de-escalate current tensions and hopes that China and other claimants will move forward with negotiations on a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea.

China quickly expressed its objection to the US proposal, citing US interference in what it prefers to handle as bilateral disputes. Despite Washington’s alleged impartiality in resolving the sovereignty of contested areas, like the Spratley and Paracel Islands, the US plans to give $156 million to several Southeast Asian nations over the next two years to improve their maritime capabilities. China stated it “hopes that countries outside the region strictly maintain their neutrality, clearly distinguish right from wrong and earnestly respect the joint efforts of countries in the region to maintain regional peace and stability.” China’s state-run media company Xinhua News also commented, “It is a painful reality that Uncle Sam has left too many places in chaos after it stepped in, as what people are witnessing now in Iraq, Syria and Libya. The South China Sea should not be the next one.”

After leaving the meeting of foreign ministers, Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Australia with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for talks with their counterparts on cooperation on regional missile defense, cyber security, and maritime issues. Both sides marked the event with the signing of an agreement to deploy 2,5000 US marines to Australia for joint exercises and training. With these developments, Washington may finally be clarifying its intention to respond to aggression against US treaty allies and its broader interests in the region.

For more information on this topic, please see the following news sources:

New Zealand Herald“US proposes construction freeze in South China Sea”

Reuters“China tells U.S. to stay out of South China Seas dispute”

The Washington Post“U.S., China Tussle Over Sea Claims”

Reuters“U.S. to monitor South China Sea for de-escalation after China rebuff”

The Diplomat“Ford, Kissinger and US Asia-Pacific Policy”

Compiled and edited by Amanda Conklin