After sending China mixed signals, if not outright acquiescence, about its declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea last December, the Obama administration, stung by criticisms from U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region, is talking tougher against China declaring an ADIZ over the South China Sea.
Geoff Dyer reports for FT.com, Feb. 9, 2014, that the Obama administration has significantly sharpened its rhetoric about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea over the last week amid growing pressure from allies in the region for Washington to take a firmer line.
In public statements in recent days, senior US officials placed the blame for tensions in the region solely on China and warned that the US could move more forces to the western Pacific if Beijing were to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
Reportedly several Asia governments have complained privately to Washington that China is taking advantage of the U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East, to pursue its territorial claims in Asia with greater confidence.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, said the Obama administration is “definitely trying to turn up the volume about China. This is as close as the Obama administration has come to saying that the nine-dash line is illegal. It is quite significant because they previously danced around the issue.” The nine-dash line is a map produced by China which appears to claim that the bulk of the South China Sea is under Chinese control.
China is involved in a series of increasingly tense territorial disputes in the East China Sea with Japan and in the South China Sea with Vietnam and the Philippines. The US, along with several other governments in the region, believes that China is pushing these claims as part of a broader strategy to exert greater control over large areas of the western Pacific.
In a statement, Evan Medeiros, the Asia director at the White House National Security Council, warned China against declaring an ADIZ for the South China Sea. “We have been very clear with the Chinese that we would see that [the establishment of a new air zone] as a provocative and destabilizing development that would result in changes in our presence and military posture in the region.”
Last week at a Congressional hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Danny Russel testified that “There are growing concerns that this pattern of behavior in the South China Sea reflects incremental effort by China to assert control over the area” and that China had “created uncertainty, insecurity and instability in the region.” Russel urged China to “clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea.”
Russel said that any claims to the seas must be based on genuine land features, rather than just rocks that can be covered at high tide. Under the UN convention on the law of the sea, a country can claim a 200km economic zone around islands. Russel also endorsed the effort by the Philippines to take its territorial dispute with China to an international court, part of its efforts to find a “peaceful, non-coercive” solution.
The problem, however, is that although the Obama administration bases some of its arguments on the UN convention on the law of the sea, the US Senate has refused to ratify the same treaty.
- “Our Future Anti-China Military Strategy,” Jan. 30, 2014.
- “U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Locklear says China is eclipsing U.S. in Asia,” Jan. 18, 2014.
- “Chinese warship tries to stop U.S. warship in So. China Sea’s international waters,” Dec. 13, 2013.
- “China threatens war in South and East China Seas,” Jan. 13, 2014.
- “China’s ADIZ is a strategic move to control First Island Chain,” Dec. 25, 2013.
UPDATE (Feb. 11, 2014):
Predictably, China is bristling, characterizing the above comments by various U.S. officials as “irresponsible.”
At a press briefing on Feb. 10, 2014, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said foreign officials should reflect carefully on their stances regarding China’s legitimate rights before making such comments. ‘We hope that relevant countries and officials can stop making irresponsible comments,’ the spokeswoman said.