Interesting times indeed. This is a guest post from Michael Auslin, a
scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute in
"The provincial government of Hainan
Island in south China, which Beijing gives "jurisdiction" over the
South China Sea, has announced that starting in January naval patrols have the
right to intercept and board ships that "trespass" the Sea's waters,
according to Chinese state media. They will also have the authority to force
intercepted ships to change course. The South China Sea is not just disputed
territory between China and five other claimant nations, but also contains some
of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Coming just four days after China showed the world its first launch
and recovery of a fighter jet from its sole aircraft carrier, and roughly
four monthsafter Beijing upgraded a small naval outpost to become a full-fledged
military garrison covering the South China Sea, this news seems both logical
and stunningly reckless. Already, China's expansive claims to the island
territories and waters of the South China Sea have put it at odds with its
neighbors and the United States over the past several years. Yet freedom of
navigation has always been seen as the one red line with China's growing
military strength. Beijing can threaten Taiwan, oppress Tibet, tussle
with Asian neighbors over contested island territory, and build stealth
fighters and carrier-killer missiles, but interfering with the world's trade
and free navigation was assumed to be the one (plausible) thing that would
result in intervention by the U.S. Navy to uphold international law.
If Beijing is confident enough that the rest of the world won't stand up to
its step by-step assertion of power in Asia, then that belief may well be put
to the test. Washington pundits have latched on to the idea of "security
in the global commons" for several years now, mainly in response to
fears that China was becoming strong enough to shift the balance of power in
Asia's waters in its favor. While issues like Tibet were largely considered
internal to China, the "commons" were used as shorthand for global
interests, like freedom on the high seas, that Beijing understood could not be
surrendered by the international community.
More worryingly, this news is also a sign of how things might develop under
new leader Xi Jinping, who took power as Communist Party chief just this month.
Many have wondered how close Xi is to the People's Liberation Army, or whether the
embarrassing scandal involving fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai from this
spring would force Xi to show his control early, perhaps by stirring up tension
with Japan. Yet a challenge to the bedrock of maritime law that could result in
a conflict at sea seems too far even for China's usually cautious leadership.
The real question, then, is whether Beijing truly intends to cross the line
because it feels strong enough to get away with it, or if this is just more
bluster from a regime that continually tests the resolve of nations in Asia.
What these new rules really mean is still vague, and Beijing will probably
have to clarify more than it did yesterday, by stating that there was no
present" with other nations freely transiting the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Washington needs to make clear in the strongest possible terms that
freedom of navigation won't be interfered with under any circumstances, and
that the U.S. Navy will forcibly prevent any ship from being boarded or turned
around by Chinese vessels.
If Washington fails to come up with a clear policy and operational plan, and
responds sluggishly if China interferes with innocent shipping, then it will
lose more credibility in an Asia that is already questioning its staying power,
and will undermine President Obama's promise to "rebalance" to the
In a speech and remarkably candid Q&A session on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reflected on the broad trends that will transform U.S. foreign policy while addressing today's most pressing issues, including the Syrian crisis (Clinton pledged to "do more" to help the Syrian opposition without specifying the specific measures Washington will take) and the successful Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations (Clinton condemned the "unfortunate and counterproductive resolution" and called for direct peace negotiations between the parties).
Here are some of the highlights from Clinton's remarks, which came during a "Transformational Trends 2013" forum sponsored by the Foreign Policy Group and the State Department's Policy Planning Staff.
Asked about reports that the United States has set a March deadline for Iran to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into its nuclear program, Clinton suggested that the next several months -- sandwiched between elections in the United States and upcoming elections in Iran -- could be critical for striking a nuclear deal with Tehran, even while admitting that she is not a "wild-eyed optimist" about reaching an agreement:
I will say that we continue to
believe that there is still a window of opportunity to reach some kind of
resolution over Iran's nuclear program. Now, I'm not a wild-eyed optimist about
it, but I think it's imperative that we do everything we can - unilaterally,
bilaterally, multilaterally - to test that proposition.
I think what was meant about the
March reference was either about the IAEA and its continuing work or the fact
that we finished our election and now would be a good time to test the
proposition that there can be some good-faith serious negotiations before the
Iranians get into their elections, which are going to heat up probably around
the March period, heading toward a June election.
In addition to discussing the strides the Syrian opposition has made
made recently and hinting that the United States could offer further
support, Clinton offered a pretty frank assessment of how Syria's neighbors see the crisis:
So Turkey, for example, is
very much at the leadership level committed to seeing the end of the Syrian
regime, but incredibly worried that nothing be done that empowers the Kurds,
particularly the PKK affiliates. Jordan is working hard to maintain stability
inside its own country. They are obviously worried about upsetting the delicate
demographic balance inside. Lebanon has tried very hard to stay out of it
because of their own internal conflicts and the role that Hezbollah plays and
the opportunity for Sunni extremists to take up safe havens inside Lebanon, to
be able to go back and forth across the border. The Golan Heights has been
threatened by Syrian action.
When asked about the Chinese perception that the U.S. "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region is destabilizing, Clinton noted that
"you might need a psychiatrist
to answer that because we certainly have made it as clear as we possibly could
that the Pacific is big enough for both of us." She then argued that the current wave of territorial disputes in the South China Sea is about resources, plain and simple, adding that a Chinese official once asked her how the United States would feel if Beijing claimed Hawaii:
At one point in one of my long
discussions about this, one of my Chinese interlocutors said, "Well, we could
claim Hawaii." I said, "Well, go ahead, and we'll go to arbitration and prove
we own it. That's what we want you to do."
So I think that this is a learning
process for everybody, because why are these now - these old territorial
disputes coming to the forefront? Because people think there are resources, and
they want to drill, and they want to find out what's there. And they think it's
got material benefits for them. But it has to be done in a lawful way. And
that's why I've advocated strongly that we accede to the Convention on the Law
of the Seas, because it will strengthen our hand in making these cases.
Clinton expressed skepticism about calls in Latin America and the United States for drug legalization as a new approach to the drug war (especially after the recent votes in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana), arguing that drug traffickers would react by simply pursuing a new line of business:
We are formulating our own response
to the votes of two of our states, as you know, and what that means for the
federal system, the federal laws, and law enforcement. So I respect those in
the region who believe strongly that that would end the problem. I am not
convinced of that, just speaking personally. I think when you've got ruthless,
vicious people who have made money one way, if it's somehow blocked, they'll
figure out another way. They'll do kidnapping, they'll do extortion. They will
suborn officials and basically take over swathes of territory that they will
govern and terrorize people in.
So I don't think that's the answer.
Whether there is some movement that can be discussed, I think will have to be a
topic for the future for us.
Clinton told a story about former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's frustration with international climate talks to illustrate the difficulty of making progress on global warming. But she also sounded a surprisingly optimistic note about the Obama administration's efforts to combat climate change:
In December 2009, the international
community gathered in Copenhagen to try to negotiate a way forward on climate
change. Interests collided, talks stalled, tempers frayed. And I remember well
late one night being in a very small room in the convention center with a large
number of leaders. We emerged after 2 a.m. following a particularly frustrating
session. Everyone rushed to the doors. The cars were trying to get to everyone
waiting to take all of us to our hotels. We were standing there when Nicolas
Sarkozy looked up into the cold Danish sky with exasperation and declared,
"After this, I want to die." (Laughter.) I think that's how we all
felt, to some extent.
But we kept at it. And thanks in
large measure to the fun that President Obama and I had in intervening in a
meeting to which we were not invited, we hammered out a deal that, while far
from perfect, set the stage for future progress on this critical issue, because
starting in Copenhagen and continuing in Cancun, Durban, and this week in Doha,
we have pushed for a global agreement that would apply to all significant
emitters, developed and developing alike, because there is no way to get ahead
of this crisis unless we do that.
Over the past four years, the Obama
Administration has also struck a deal with car companies to nearly double fuel
efficiency by 2025. We've doubled production of clean energy, made historic
investments in breakthrough technologies, launched new international partnerships
like the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to take aim at pollutants like black
carbon and methane that account for more than 30 percent of current global
warming. That's grown from just six countries to more than two dozen today.
At one point in her speech, Clinton noted that she has gone
"to something on the order of
112 countries" (not that she's counting). And she explained why she trekked to countries as far-flung as Togo:
I have found it highly ironic
that in today's world, when we can be anywhere virtually, more than ever people
want us to show up actually. Somebody said to me the other day, "I look at
your travel schedule. Why Togo? Why the Cook Islands?" No Secretary of
State had ever been to Togo before. Togo happens to be on the UN Security
Council. Going there, making the personal investment, has a real strategic
purpose. The same goes for all those tiny Pacific islands. When you look at the
future of Asia, you look at the voting dynamics in key international
institutions, you start to understand the value of paying attention to these
You can watch Clinton's address in full below, and read the full transcript here.