By Jae-kyung Park
Early last month, the U.S. Department of State and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China exchanged harsh words publically on the issue of South China Sea. On August 3, the U.S. State Department issued a press statement with the heading of ‘South China Sea’. The words therein are carefully and considerately crafted, with an emphasis that the U.S. does not “take a position on competing territorial claims over land features and have no territorial ambitions in the South China Sea”. Still, it seems hard to refute an assessment that the State Department “assailed” and “criticized” China, as the editorial of the Washington Post suggests on August 15.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry was quick to strongly refute the press statement by the State Department. On August 4, the Ministry issued a written document in the form of ‘Statement by Spokesperson’, with expressing their “strong dissatisfaction of” and “firm opposition to” the press statement by its U.S. counterpart.
From this exchange on the South China Sea issue, I find some points to be noteworthy.
First, these are open, public and written documents, targeting each other directly. It has often been the case that the two sides express their positions squarely at closed governmental meetings including the most recent one at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia in July. At leaders’ meetings, as well, like the East Asia Summit, held last year in Bali, both President Obama and Premier Wen Jiabao touched upon the issue. However, the exact statements of each side are not usually released even after the meetings. As a cure for curiosity, ASEAN hosted multilateral meetings usually release so-called ‘Chair’s Statement’ after each meeting. And there has been a paragraph on the South China Sea issue in the statement. Of course, as is most often the case, the outcome document is somewhat compromising, creative and artful works of the ASEAN chair country. In other words, it is short of reflecting the genuine discussions by the representatives during the meetings. Anyway it is safe in many cases for all the parties concerned not to reveal everything that has been exchanged at governmental meetings. It is why closed sessions may be better than open ones where they exchange blows publicly, with less room to maneuver afterwards, if necessary.
Second, “maintenance of peace and stability” was emphasized as a “national interest” in the State Department’s press statement. Through a statement released after a meeting between President Aquino of the Philippines and President Obama in June this year in Washington, the two leaders “underscored the importance of the principles of ensuring freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce.” Now the State Department added the maintenance of peace and stability, and again defined it as a national interest.
At many of the multilateral government meetings in East Asia, one can easily see maritime security as one of the key agenda items. No matter how skillfully annotated, ‘maritime security’ has been understood as the issue of freedom of navigation and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Even though China does not feel comfortable at the mentioning of freedom of navigation, China, when asked, argues that freedom of navigation has never been jeopardized and has been guaranteed. China also shows commitment to its continued freedom. Thus, it is positive to see that China shows commitment to the freedom of navigation. Here, raising the issue of freedom of navigation at multilateral meeting seems to pay. And also the emphasis on peaceful resolution of territorial issues by non-claimants serves well at least as a matter of principle.
However, when it comes to maintenance of peace and stability defined as a national interest, the emphasis may be in a danger of leading to nowhere, in which the concerned parties have fallen into pursuing never-ending arguments with each other. It is most likely because the concept of both ‘peace and stability’ and ‘national interest’ is quite a relative one, which can be understood and interpreted differently from country to country. In the U.S. statement, it mentions China’s recent establishment of Sansha, a city on Woody Island in the disputed Paracels archipelago, and states that it “run[s] counter to collaborative efforts to resolve differences and risk[s] further escalating tensions” in the region. As a response, China mentioned that peace and stability in the South China Sea “has been maintained” and the U.S act and stance are “not conducive to peace and stability” in the region in its statement. This is a typical tit-for-tat situation where countries pinpoint each other in order to stand on higher moral ground.
The South China Sea issue may not soon be solved by each claimant state. It is about more than natural resources. It is about territory. It is about history. It is about national pride. And thus it is all together about national interest. Through recognizing the complexity of the issue, one may realize it is not the resolution of the issue once and for all that is to be pursued in the near-term. Rather it is the stable management of the issue that is essential. Freedom of navigation will be further guaranteed under the situation. For the claimants, and non-claimants as well, that is the goal to be pursued and building an environment conducive towards it should be crafted. It is a tremendously important test both to the ASEAN as a community and to the U.S. and China in East Asia.
Korea is not a claimant state on any single islands in the South China Sea. Still, Korea has a significant stake in maritime commerce through the sea. The South China Sea provides vital sea lanes to Korea in its trade with outside world, in particular energy imports from Middle East. Thus, there is the relevance for Korea in to trying to secure a guaranteed and unimpeded freedom of navigation. Fortunately, there have not been actual cases reported that the freedom has been restricted by any sides on merchant ships from a third country. And China continues to express its commitment to freedom of navigation. Any possible course of action should be crafted with full consideration of the nature of disputes, its impact on maritime commerce and Korea’s own territory, and relations with each claimant states. Again, such effort needs to be pursued with caution, not to be regarded by any claimant states as an intervention or taking side in the territorial claims. That is why any comments or statements at governmental meetings should continue to be carefully chosen and delivered without sending the wrong signal to all the parties concerned.
Jae-kyung Park is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Andy Enero’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.