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What Really Happened at the ARF?

November 3, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Over the next week, as attention turns from the recently concluded midterm elections to President Obama’s upcoming trip to Asia, you will hear a lot about statements made in July at the ASEAN Regional Forum, better known as the ARF. Journalists covering the meeting quickly played up the tensions between the American and Chinese delegations, suggesting that Secretary Hillary Clinton had boldly stood up to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea in her remarks to the Forum.

But what really happened at the ARF? The narrative that emerged from the meeting may lack nuance. Bonnie Glaser of the Freeman Chair here at CSIS breaks down just what was said in her latest Comparative Connections article:

Speaking after 11 out of 27 countries’ representatives voiced concerns about peace and stability in the South China Sea, Clinton maintained that the US had a “national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” She expressed support for the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea, and offered assistance “to facilitate initiatives and confidence-building measures consistent with the declaration.” Clinton did not alter the long-standing US position of neutrality on the territorial disputes in the region and did not take a position on how the disputes should be resolved. Rather, she emphasized the need to resolve disputes without the use or threat of force and stated that “claimants should pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with the UN convention on the law of the sea.”

Caught off guard by Clinton’s address and the large number of countries that aired concerns about the situation in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Yang took an hour-long break and then returned to the forum with his own strongly worded statement. He argued that the situation in the South China Sea was peaceful, and that the rapid growth of trade was evidence that navigational freedom had “obviously not” been hindered. Yang also insisted that “channels of discussion” between China and ASEAN were “open and smooth.” Finally, he cautioned other countries against internationalizing the South China Sea territorial disputes. “It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult. International practices show that the best way to resolve such disputes is for countries concerned to have direct bilateral negotiations.” A statement posted on China’s Foreign Ministry website entitled “Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi Refutes Fallacies on the South China Sea Issue” accused Secretary Clinton of launching an “attack” on China that was “designed to give the international community a wrong impression that the situation in the South China Sea is a cause for grave concern.”

Secretary Clinton’s articulation of a more detailed and coherent US policy on the South China Sea than in the past was a result of several developments. First, a number of states have been operating contrary to the DOC, in which parties agreed to resolve territorial disputes through peaceful means without the threat of or the use of force. This trend aroused worries in Washington given the sea’s importance to commercial activity and navigation.

Second, many countries in the region, concerned about the potentially destabilizing nature of these activities, had urged the US to speak out on the issue. Chinese assertiveness in particular had raised concerns in both Southeast Asia and the US. With its military modernization, China has become better equipped to pursue its own interests through methods such as unilaterally enforcing fishing bans and providing naval escorts for Chinese fishing vessels.

Third, there were worrisome signs that China’s stance on the South China Sea was hardening. According to widespread reports, high-ranking Chinese officials had told US counterparts in closed-door meetings that the South China Sea was one of China’s “core interests,” suggesting that the issue was “non-negotiable” and belonged to Beijing in the same way that Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan are considered to be part of China. The US sought to head off the adoption of an official position by Chinese officials that the South China Sea was a core interest, which might include claiming sovereignty over the entire maritime space rather than waters “derived solely from legitimate claims to land features,” as Clinton stated at the ARF meeting.

Accordingly, US officials privately explained, the Obama administration had concluded that it was necessary to go beyond traditional statements about “what US policy does not seek to do” in the South China Sea to a clear statement of “what US policy seeks to achieve.”

The entire chapter (PDF), co-authored by the Freeman Chair’s Brittany Billingsley, reviews developments in Sino-American relations over July, June, and August. It is worth a read.

Canadian government photo in the public domain.

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