Tension In South China Sea Producing New Allies, Further Criticism Of Obama Administration

Last week it was disclosed that Defense Secretary Ash Carter would not be visiting China during his trip to Asia due to increasing tensions in the region. Meanwhile, Vietnam and the Philippines are pushing forward this week with talks about potential plans to hold joint exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea, reports Reuters.

Such discussions are the product of a growing bilateral relationship between Vietnam and the Philippines, which elevated their ties to the level of a strategic partnership last year. The partnership underscores the increasing worry China’s neighbors have about its intention in the region, where territorial disputes have the potential to spill over.

The most recent contretemps occurred after a group of foreign ministers issued a statement expressing concern about China’s naval activities. On Monday, the foreign ministers stated, “We express our strong opposition to any intimidating coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.”

Beijing was not pleased and China’s ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China “solemnly clarified” to the diplomats its position on its land claim in the Spratly islands. The statement went on to accuse the G7 of diverging from its mission of safeguarding the global economy and then requested a meeting with the G7 foreign ministers.

“After this (G7) statement was issued, we indeed found some things were correct and some were incorrect,” Lu told reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference. “As part the ritual of the exchanges among countries, when we find something wrong, we will definitely clarify to the relevant country our opinion and stance.”

Concern with the tensions and the administration’s response were echoed in an op-ed written by a senior member of the Senate.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asserted in an op-ed in the Financial Times that it is time for the Obama administration to adopt a tougher posture toward China that fits the scale and velocity of the challenge posed by Beijing.

“The potential threats China will pose in the South China Sea in the coming months demand a change of course that can reassure the region of America’s commitment and demonstrate to Beijing that its pursuit of maritime hegemony will be met with a determined response,” he writes.

McCain also points to a central weakness of the Obama foreign policy – an overwhelming reluctance to use force or the threat of force.

“The administration’s aversion to risk has resulted in a policy that has failed to deter China’s pursuit of maritime hegemony, while confusing and alarming America’s regional allies and partners,” he adds.

As the Obama administration searches for ways to avoid confronting China, the Asian hegemon is employing a unique covert tool in its military arsenal – fishermen.

Specifically, Beijing is using fishing vessels to expand its fishing industry’s zone of operations in order to solidify its claim that they have ownership of islands in the South China Sea because fishermen have worked there for centuries, according to The Washington Post.

“The Chinese authorities consider fishermen and fishing vessels important tools in expanding China’s presence and the country’s claims in the disputed waters,” said Zhang Hongzhou, an expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“Fishermen are increasingly at the front line of the South China Sea disputes,” Zhang said, “and fishing incidents could trigger even bigger diplomatic and security tensions between China and regional countries.”

Doyle Hodges, a scholar at Princeton University and a former Navy commander, offers a useful primer on the law surrounding China’s numerous territorial claims in the South China Sea.

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