US tells China: Don’t use Crimea land grab model
In its strongest message since the standoff between Manila and Beijing over the disputed Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal) in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) on March 29, the United States warned on Thursday that China should not doubt the US commitment to defend its Asian allies and the prospect of economic retaliation should also discourage China from using force to pursue territorial claims in Asia, in the way Russia has done in the annexation of Crimea.
The message was sounded by US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel at the Senate foreign relations committee. In a dispatch from Washington, Reuters reported that Russel told the committee that it was difficult to determine what China’s intentions might be, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea had heightened concerns among US allies in Asia about the possibility of Beijing using force to pursue its claims.
“The net effect is to put more pressure on China to demonstrate that it is committed to peaceful resolution on the problems,” Russel told the committee. The retaliatory sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union and others should have a “chilling effect on anyone in China who might contemplate the Crimea annexation as a model.”
This was especially so given the extent of China’s economic interdependence with the United States and its Asian neighbors, he said. While the United States did not take position on rival territorial claims in East Asia, it said China should be in no doubt about Washington’s resolve to defend its allies if necessary.
“The president of the United States and the Obama administration is firmly committed to honoring our defense commitments to our allies,” Russel said in a carefully crafted statement. While Washington stood by its commitments—which include defense treaties with Japan, the Philippines and South Korea—there was no reason why rival territorial claims could not be resolved peacefully.
Referring to the Philippines’ dispute with China, Russel said he hoped the fact that the Philippines had filed a case against China on March 30 at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague would encourage China to clarify and remove the ambiguity surrounding its claims.
He termed the deployment of large numbers of Chinese vessels in its dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea “problematic” and said that Beijing had taken “what to us appears to be intimidating steps.” He said, “It is incumbent of all claimants to foreswear intimidation, coercion and other nondiplomatic or extralegal means.”
China has competing territorial claims with Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea, as well as with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Russel’s statement sets the stage for the visit of US President Barack Obama to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines from April 22. He is expected to stress his commitment to rebalancing of US strategic and economic focus toward the Asia-Pacific region in the face of an increasingly assertive and expansionist China.
Earlier, on April 1, the United States applied diplomatic pressure on China to resolve territorial disputes with its neighbors within the framework multilateral negotiations, not according to rules dictated by Beijing. At the three-day meeting of defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Honolulu, the Associated Press reported that Southeast Asian defense leaders pointed to Russia’s recent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula as one example of why the Pacific must be more unified in the face of territorial disputes.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel played host to the Honolulu conference, calling it “an important milestone” in the US effort to put more focus on the Pacific region.
According to AP, in private sessions, the ministers talked about the ripple effect of such territorial disputes and sovereignty violations and stressed strength in unity among Pacific nations to avert their being gobbled up by China’s divide-and-rule strategy embodied by its multilateral approach in dealing with its smaller and weaker neighbors.
Territorial claims of China in the East and South China seas have escalated tensions in the region, rattling Singapore and Malaysia. According to the report, Beijing’s recent declaration of an air defense zone over disputed islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea, and its new rules to regulate fishing in a huge portion of the South China Sea “have deepened concerns that its rise as a regional power could spark a confrontation.”
The standoff last month between the Philippines and China at Ayungin Shoal over Manila’s determination to resupply its tiny Marine garrison on the shoal pushed Philippine ships and Chinese coast guard patrols to the brink of a naval showdown in the disputed islet.
Hagel told reporters in Honolulu on Thursday that one of the approaches the Asean defense ministers was considering was Singapore’s proposal to use its Changi Naval Base as a crisis coordination center.
Not Chinese vassal state
As part of the US effort to engage Asean nations in collective security measures against Chinese territorial expansion in the region, the Pentagon has increased US troops and equipment in the region. The Honolulu meeting gave Hagel the opportunity to showcase some of Pentagon’s hardware.
The ministers toured the USS Anchorage, an amphibious assault ship, used largely to transport and launch Marine operations. They saw a number of displays at Pearl Harbor, including F-22 fighter jets and B-2 and B-52 bombers. The tours “were aimed at getting the ministers more familiar with US military capabilities and how their armed forces might be able to interact or train with American troops in the future,” the news services report said.
The United States has taken a stronger and firmer tone on its defense commitments to its Asian allies following China’s accusation of “abuse of process” by the Philippines in seeking UN arbitration to settle disputes in the South China Sea. China called Manila’s move a “smear campaign” to tarnish Beijing’s image in the international community. The Chinese Embassy last week said the Philippines “seriously damaged” its relations with China by submitting the Philippine memorandum on the dispute to the tribunal.
In going to the United Nations, the Philippines refused to be cowed by threats of retaliation from China. It told China in its memorial that the Philippines did not submit its case to the Chinese imperial court to determine its space in the South China Sea. The memorial told China’s rulers: The Philippines is not a vassal state under the suzerainty of Beijing.
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