Of direct relevance to the security of Southeast Asia were Gates’ remarks concerning the changing strategic context of the South China Sea dispute. As noted by contributors to the Jamestown Foundation, tensions in the South China Sea have been on the upswing since 2007 due to a combination of rising nationalism, increasing friction over access to energy and fishery resources, attempts by the various disputants to bolster their jurisdictional claims, and the rapid modernization of the PLA Navy which is shifting the military balance of power in China’s favor .Note (1) Chinese pressure on US corporations to suspend their activities in the area; (2) China's preference for bilateral negotiations where it can exert pressure on "partners" rather than as an equal; (3) the shifting balance of military power in China's favor; and (4) US naturally drawn to support the forces against China.
At SLD, Gates highlighted the territorial dispute as an “area of growing concern for the United States.” He reiterated long-standing U.S. policy― that America has a vital interest in the maintenance of stability and freedom of navigation in the sea, does not take sides on competing sovereignty claims, and opposes the use of force to resolve the problem. Yet he added that the United States objected “to any effort to intimidate U.S. corporations or those of any other nation engaged in legitimate economic activity,” a clear reference to attempts by the PRC to pressure foreign energy corporations― including U.S. giant ExxonMobil—into suspending oil and gas projects in disputed waters off the Vietnamese coast.
Gates went on to underscore the importance of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) as a mechanism to mitigate rising tensions. Conceived by ASEAN as a way of promoting dialogue and cooperative confidence building measures among the claimant countries, talks between the organization and China on formulating guidelines to implement the DoC stalled in 2009 over Beijing’s insistence that discussions could only proceed on a bilateral basis rather than with the ten member grouping as a whole, an approach rejected by ASEAN. According to Gates, the United States supports the “concrete implementation” of the agreement, a remark that can only be seen as Washington’s stamp of approval for Vietnam’s efforts as ASEAN Chair to break the diplomatic impasse and coax Beijing into putting the agreement into practice (See “China’s ‘Charm Offensive” Loses Momentum in Southeast Asia Part I,” China Brief, April 29, 2010.
These areas of tension sprawl across the US-China relationship -- because they are symptoms, not causes. On with the hegemonic wars: will we be Spain of Philip III, or Edwardian Britain?
Let's not forget that Taiwan claims all the islands in the Spratlys (map), as does China. China and other claimants in the area have long used the foreign oil companies against each other -- in the 1990s Vietnam and China gave competing firm leases in the same disputed area, just to piss each other off. People often argue that the KMT government's claim to be the government of China has no real-world fallout, but its insane desire to annex everything that China wants puts the people of Taiwan into conflict with a number of nations around it whose support is needed -- in area where increasing Chinese military power means inevitable armed conflict.
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