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US wants to maintain influence in South China Sea

Ensign Jeremy Brooks communicates as the conning officer aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) during a signaling exercise with the Royal Malaysian Navy patrol vessel KD Pahang (172) in the South China Sea. File/US Navy/Paul Kelly

MANILA, Philippines – With the symbolic handshakes and unity photo-op, US President Barack Obama’s high-profile summit with Southeast Asian leaders in California today and tomorrow aims to step up pressure against China’s increasingly worrisome behavior in disputed waters.

Forging a common front and encouraging bolder rhetoric against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, however, will be a challenge among the diverse collection of VIP guests, who did not criticize China by name in past joint summit statements as the disputes flared on and off in recent years.

“We want to make very clear that the United States is going to be at the table and a part of setting the agenda in the Asia-Pacific in the decades to come,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters last week.

The first day of the summit is scheduled to focus on economic issues and trade, including discussion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which includes four of the ASEAN members: Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia.

ASEAN includes governments aligned either with Washington or Beijing. Only four of its 10 member states are locked in the disputes with China and Taiwan, leading to sometimes conflicting views on handling the long-simmering rifts.

The regional bloc decides by consensus, meaning just one member can effectively shoot down any statement detrimental to China.

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In recent years, summit statements have expressed concern over the escalating conflicts and called for freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed territories, but they have rarely gone to specifics.

“I think it will be hard for the US to convince the 10 ASEAN states to adopt any language on the South China Sea disputes that go beyond what ASEAN statements have said in the past,” said Malcolm Cook of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Cue from US

The challenge at the summit may be to get all ASEAN countries to agree on a strong statement on the issue. Analysts say China has put pressure on countries such as Cambodia and Laos not to sign on.

Pressure from Obama, and a message that the US would continue to engage with the group, may counteract that.

“If the ASEAN leaders feel that the United States is investing in ASEAN ... that would encourage even the weakest, the most susceptible ASEAN states to sign on with their brothers to make these statements,” said Ernest Bower, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“No one in Southeast Asia wants the Chinese to run roughshod over their smaller neighbors.”

With Obama in his last year in office, certain ASEAN member states would probably not concede on any security or economic issue that might antagonize China, an economic lifeline to them, Cook said.

A Southeast Asian diplomat said government envoys in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, where the ASEAN secretariat is located, have been negotiating the text of a possible joint statement to be issued by Obama and his Southeast Asian counterparts at the end of the two-day summit, which opened at the sprawling Sunnylands estate, a resort in California.

There have been initial differences among the governments on the wording of the statement, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss details of the negotiations with reporters. 

Meanwhile, a senior US naval officer said yesterday any move by China to fly jet fighters from runways on its new man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea would be destabilizing and would not deter US flights over the area.

Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, also urged Beijing to be more open over its intentions in the area, saying it would relieve “some of the angst we are now seeing.”

“We are unsure where they are taking us,” Aucoin said during a briefing with journalists in Singapore.

Chinese and regional security analysts expect Beijing to start using its new runways in the disputed Spratlys archipelago for military operations in the next few months.                              

 

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