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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations
Committee Hearings on the South
China Sea

Carlyle A. Thayer
July 16, 2009
[client name deleted]
The US Committee on Foreign Relations just ended its hearing about tension on East Sea
(Maritime Disputes and Sovereignty Issues in East Asia).
Q1. What is the message of this hearing to China? Any changes in the US's policy on East
ANSWER: Chinese harassment of the USNS Impeccable has resulted in raising the
importance of maritime disputes in the South China Sea for the Obama Administration. China
will not be pleased with what it has provoked. Both deputy assistant secretaries of State (East
Asian and ASEAN Affairs) and defense (South and Southeast Asia) highlighted Chinese
assertiveness and growing military capability in the South China Sea as a factor creating
friction threatening regional peace and security. China’s air and sea build up at a new base on
Hainan island was specially highlighted. Both officials outlined a robust U.S. policy response
that comprises both ‘stick and carrot’. China has been left on notice that the U.S. will continue
to assert its prerogative to send military vessels into China’s Exclusive Economic Zones. At
the same time the United States has opened the door for a settlement of these issues through
bilateral dialogue.
Q2. Will Vietnam benefit from these changes if any?
ANSWER: Vietnam will benefit from the strong dismissal of China’s legal basis for its maritime
sovereignty claims by U.S. officials.
Vietnam will privately take comfort in the assertion that the United States will act to prevent
any further Chinese intimidation of U.S. companies to withdraw from lawful commercial
development with Vietnam of energy (oil and gas) resources in the South China Sea. In
particular, Deputy Assistant Secretary Marciel specifically highlighted Chinese pressures on
U.S. companies working with Vietnam in offshore blocks that he claimed fell outside the area
claimed by China.
Further, Vietnam will be reassured by official pledges that the U.S. will remain engaged in the
South China Sea and build stronger security relationships with partners as a balance to
China. Finally, Vietnam will be pleased that it was referred to as either a friend or partner of
the United States in testimony by officials and experts who testified before the Senate
Committee on Foreign Relations.