Hu Jintao’s Visit and the South China Sea: “Whose/Hu’s Core Interests?”

Understanding what China wants to be in Asia and globally is a foundational question for U.S. policymakers. It is a question shared by our treaty allies in Asia—Australia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand—as well as the rest of Southeast Asia. Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington next week will be an opportunity to look for clues to be used in solving that puzzle. A key piece will be the South China Sea.

Over the last 18 months, China has managed to substantially reverse its neighbors’ perceptions from seeing China as a friend and benign power to a competitor with uncertain goals, including possibly harboring plans that impinge on other nations’ sovereignty. This is not the end of the “China charm offensive” that kicked into high gear in the late 1990s after the Asian financial crisis, but it is a major derailing of that train of growing confidence and trust. Asia needs China’s economic dynamism, but it is now quite wary of Chinese nationalism and military intentions.

China’s actions in the South China Sea, as well as in north Asia in response to North Korean provocations in sinking the South Korean ship Cheonan and bombing Yeongpyeong Island, and its actions in the Senkakus and Diaoyu Islands have stirred atavistic anxieties, or antibodies, among its neighbors. Asian countries are concerned because at the same time that China’s economic dynamism provided a well-timed boost to regional economies, helping Asia weather the recent global financial crisis, its nationalistic impulses and actions, particularly around disputed maritime territories, have reinforced the need for U.S. security assurances and balance of power in Asia.

Q1: What are U.S. interests in the South China Sea?

A1: Last July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an important rhetorical investment in U.S. engagement in Asia at the ASEAN Regional Forum, stating that the United States maintained a national interest in freedom of navigation and open sea-lanes in the South China Sea, and she articulated a U.S. desire to see regional disputes in the South China Sea resolved on a multilateral basis and according to international rule of law. This was a position that was coordinated with and strongly supported by many concerned Asian nations. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China responded angrily to Clinton’s assertion, and while it is now a point of technical contention regarding who said what, it is true that Chinese senior officials asserted that the South China Sea was a “core interest” and that China had “indisputable sovereignty” in that body of water.

Q2: Will the South China Sea be a focal point of Hu’s visit to Washington?

A2: While China would prefer not to discuss the South China Sea with the United States, U.S. policymakers will certainly table the issue, if only in private meetings. China does not recognize Secretary Clinton’s logic in defining U.S. interests in the South China Sea and does not welcome a focus on what it sees as fundamentally a set of bilateral disputes that need to be resolved with neighboring countries. For the United States, promoting a peaceful and prosperous environment in Asia is fundamental to U.S. interests, as is the open right of navigation in these important sea-lanes. Additionally, the security assurance provided by the United States and its treaty allies in Asia has provided decades of peace and stability that have allowed Asian economies to grow and prosper.

Q3: What is the status of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea?

A3: China and ASEAN agreed to meet last December to begin discussions about developing a Code of Conduct (CoC) with binding guidelines for engagement as countries work together to resolve disputes in the South China Sea. The fundamental point of difference is that China wants to protect the concept of resolving differences bilaterally. ASEAN countries want to preserve the right to coordinate their positions in dealing with China. The prospect for resolution of this impasse remains uncertain. The United States has offered to provide support to the parties to help resolve their dispute. China has explicitly rejected the offer, and Southeast Asia has been very cautious about how to approach the offer because they have to resolve disputes among themselves and they do not want to unnecessarily anger or provoke China.

Q4: What possible steps are there to resolve the conflict in the long term?

A4: Regional security and trade architecture takes on heightened importance in this context, as do alliances and bilateral security cooperation agreements. The primary new regional security structure is the East Asia Summit (EAS). The United States and Russia joined the EAS last November. Other members are the 10 ASEAN countries and Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. It is possible that the EAS can eventually play an important role in mitigating tensions over the South China Sea and other regional conflicts in the area by enhancing transparency, promoting multilateralism, and instilling the rule of law with a longer-term goal of relieving pressure and providing for a peaceful resolution of disputes. President Obama will attend his first EAS Leaders Summit in Indonesia later this year.

Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ernest Z. Bower