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Background Brief: South China Sea: War of Words between the U.S. and China Carlyle A. Thayer August 7, 2012
[client name deleted] As you know, on August 2nd the US State Department released a statement on the South China Sea, reaffirming US support for the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the Code of Conduct in the South Chin Sea between China and ASEAN, as well as offering US help to countries in the area to keep peace and stability. A day later, a draft law number H.R.6.313 was presented to the House of Representatives by Representative Faleomavaega, senior member of House AsianPacific subcommittee, giving a motion for a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea .We request your assessment of the following: 1. What do the above-mentioned actions by the US actions imply? What are the purposes by the US for these actions? ANSWER: If we turn the pages of history back to 1994 and the Crestone affair, and China’s blocking of the Tam Dao oil rig near Tu Chinh (Vanguard Bank), we will see a consistency of U.S. policy towards the South China Sea. The U.S. then as now does not take sides in territorial disputes. The U.S., however, opposes the use of force or intimidation to resolve territorial disputes. The recent actions by the U.S. Department of State reiterate long-standing policy on the South China Sea in light of steps taken by China to impose its will by intimidating the Philippines and Vietnam. The U.S. also seeks to reassure those countries that are concerned about China’s actions the U.S. is still engaged. Resolutions have been introduced into both houses of Congress to reflect concern by public officials who have oversight of U.S. government policy. These resolutions either reinforce the message of the U.S. State Department or urge the Obama Administration “to stand up to China.” Some of the congressional reaction may be seen as political posturing as U.S. elections in November get closer. 2. Is this a start to more active US moves in the region? ANSWER: The United States will not go beyond its policy of rebalancing its military forces at a measured pace in light of budget constraints. The statement issued by the State Department is designed to let China know that despite U.S. financial difficulties it remains committed to peace and stability in the South China Sea. So far China has engaged mainly in making statements. The U.S. is trying to deter China from acting rashly.
2 3. In your assessment, would these moves have any impact on China’s current belligerent attitude? ANSWER: China will react on two levels. The first level is clear to all. Chinese propaganda organs have opened a war of words with the U.S. telling it to shut up and mind its own business. This rhetoric is probably a reflection of China’s own forthcoming leadership transition and domestic nationalism. Chinese propaganda aims to divide Southeast Asia by convincing some governments it is the U.S. that is responsible for raising tensions. On the second level, Chinese military officials do not want to confront the United States at this time. Statements by the U.S. State Department and resolutions in Congress will only reinforce the views of China’s military that the U.S. will use the South China Sea to block China’s rise. They will also view U.S. official statements as emboldening Vietnam and the Philippines to stand up to China. China’s military will bide its time.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: War of Words between the U.S. and China,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 7, 2012. Thayer Consultancy Background Briefs are archived and may be accessed at: http://www.scribd.com/carlthayer.