After backing down on initial plans to operate George Washington in the Yellow Sea as part of the initial round of US-RoK exercises in response to the sinking of the Cheonan, State and Defense seem to have come back with a counterpunch that will no doubt knock policymakers in Beijing off balance.

Opening a new source of potential friction with China, the Obama administration said Friday that it would step into a tangled dispute between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over a string of strategically significant islands in the South China Sea.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at an Asian regional security meeting in Vietnam, stressed that the United States remained neutral on which regional countries had stronger territorial claims to the islands. But she said that the United States had an interest in preserving free shipping in the area and that it would be willing to facilitate multilateral talks on the issue.

Though presented as an offer to help ease tensions, the stance amounts to a sharp rebuke to China.

You can say that again. In all, this is an excellent move and should help disabuse any notion in Chinese planning circles that they have the initiative in this dispute. The big question is, however, will Washington keep the press on, or is this just a one time poke to get Mr. Hu’s attention? I would bet most of the Asia-Pacific hopes we keep pressing.

[Update] No surprise, China’s government is up and spinning on the governor:

The Chinese government reacted angrily on Monday to an announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Washington might step into a long-simmering territorial dispute between China and its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China warned the United States against wading into the conflict, saying it would increase regional tensions.

“What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one?” he asked in remarks published on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site. “It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult.”

The state-run news media were far less diplomatic, describing Mrs. Clinton’s speech as “an attack” and a cynical effort to suppress China’s aspirations — and its expanding might.

“America hopes to contain a China with growing military capabilities,” ran an editorial Monday in the Communist Party-run People’s Daily newspaper.

Global Times, an English-language tabloid published by People’s Daily, said, “China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.”

Chris van Avery is a Military Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The views represented herein are his own.

Posted by Chris van Avery in Foreign Policy, Maritime Security, Navy

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  • Derrick

    Which islands is Secretary Clinton referring to? Would it be the Spratley’s (sp?)?

    • In this context, it doesn’t really matter; any island(s) will do.

  • Fincher


    Yea, it’s the Spratly Islands, and also the Paracel Islands.

    Chris, I think describing this as poking China in the chest is a wonderful understatement. This is kneeing China in the groin. As I recall, China considers all the Spratly Islands & Paracel Islands to be Chinese territory, and are not interested in even entertaining the notion that other countries might have valid claims to some of the islands.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    “What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one?” he asked in remarks published on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site. “It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult.”

    Sounds a lot like six party talks.

    What worries me the most is that China (who seems to speak to its domestic audience more than any other) feels that they must use strong, accusatory words against the US. That we are the source of the challenge they are facing, that it is our fault, and our fault alone–a’la our SECDEF getting an earful from their military a few months back.

    What happens when they’ve completely convinced their population (especially their military who’s connections to the outside world are seriously curtailed) that we are their enemy? What happens when their economy hits a serious recession (which is inevitable) and the people of China demand their government to exact a toll on the US for putting them in that recession?

    It is a dangerous game that China is playing with public opinion. One that I do not think they understand. It is one thing for a people under bondage to be force-fed propaganda like this. But, a growing middle class with budding upward mobility foster opinions and a sense of being able to demand action of their government that China has no experience with. This may well back fire on their Government, and in a sense it already has–the Government of China wants to have closer military cooperation between their and our military, but their military doesn’t. This pol-mil discontinuity cannot lead to anything good. My worst fear is that the Military will tire of the Government, and decide to just remove it, and exact it’s revenge on 3rd/7th FLEET. Or, dump all the debt they hold of ours at once.

  • Byron

    I think it would be the Spratly’s and Paracels, which have both strategic importance for the location and the fact that there’s a good chance there’s oil under them. Most of the islands are barely above water level at high tide.

  • As fincher noted above it is inded the Spratly’s and Paracel islands in play – as well as other issues in the South China Sea. China is pushing very hard to carry these discussions to bilateral talks between China and indvidual claimant nations to both isolate the US and keep the regional nations disorganized. For once, however, it appears there is genuine concern over an increasingly aggressive China backed up with a growing navy asserting itself in the SCS with the reult that they aren’t backing off the multi-party format.
    For now that is…this could get interesting.
    w/r, SJS

  • Derrick

    In the long run, I’m not sure if announcing US involvement in these issues will change anything. Since it is widely assumed the Spratley islands may have oil underneath them, I would guess that China would assume that any aggressive action to lay claim to those islands would warrant a military reprisal from the US. Otherwise why didn’t China try to capture those islands decades ago? Probably because they learned from watching Saddam Hussein’s mistake of invading Kuwait back in August 1990.

    I guess what I am trying to assert is that regardless if the US takes any public position on those islands, China would assume the US would be involved regardless. After all, potential oil is at stake there.

    Do the other nations that lay claim to those islands wish for US involvement?

  • Derrick:

    As China is perceived to becoming more aggressive — yes, there is indeed interest in the US being “engaged”…
    w/r, SJS

  • Jay

    CDR S, URR, Byron,

    What, no “Hear Hear” for Pres Obama over this?

    All I hear is crickets…


  • Alan K. Gideon

    The Spratlys and Paracels are not the only islands that the PRC claim. They have, at various times since the formaiton of the PRC government, claimed dominion over the South China Sea and everything in it that is not one of the major islands of the Republic of the Phillippines, Indonesia, or Vietnam. There was an article in the United States Naval Institute Procedings in the past few months on this subject.

    China’s traditional view of “reducing tensions” usually translates to “do as we say so we don’t have to increase your personal tensions by attacking you.” Middle Kingdom, and all that.

  • Charley A

    Hillary Rodham Clinton is working out well as Secretary of State – who knew…?

  • Byron

    @Jay: Not taking the bait.

  • Chuck Hill

    So We want them to go to “world court” and settle it on the basis of international law. But they would rather just use intimidation. No wonder they don’t want us involved.

  • Derrick

    Is China using intimidation though? I thought Brunei, Malaysia, Phillippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and China all laid claim to those islands, yet nobody has actually “claimed” all them as of yet. (

    It seems that even without public US involvement, China has not been able to acquire all the islands. So if China has been using intimidation so far, without public US involvement, it obviously isn’t working. And I doubt US involvement will do anything more than just maintain the current status quo.

  • harry

    If americans are interfering with China’s core interest then perhaps we should solve this disput the easy way. Derrick do you really think China cant handle a bunch of small and internationally insignificant country? We tought a lesson to the vietnamese in 1988 and we got everal island back by using force. Perhaps its time to do so again, the most america will do is diplomatically oppose you guys will never take military action on somthing like this, not when China is your country’s biggest creditor and USA & EU coporations in the post economic crisis world are disparatly seeking markets in China. Look at america’s pride and joy Google after months of usless protest what did it do? yes bow before China(just like your president did in the 2010 nuclear securety summit)

  • Derrick

    Yes I really do think “China can’t handle a bunch of small and internationally insignificant countries”…as history has so far proven.

    Plus their own training indicates holes in their military capabilities:

    It would be extremely foolish for China to underestimate the US resolve to protect access to vital economic resources such as oil. Saddam Hussein learned that the hard way back in 1991. Plus China’s navy is currently no match for the US navy.

  • I agree that Hillary Cliton has been a very good Secretary of State so far, which I too didn’t expect.

    We had better be prepared to stand up to the Chinese militarists in any confrontation … anywhere, and that means we need an Air Force and Navy second to none.

    Where are you from, harry?

  • Derrick

    China has yet to field a blue water navy that can match the US. And as far as I can tell, the US military as a whole is second to none.

    If history is any indicator, China will probably try to buy those disputed islands off the different parties currently occupying them. China seems to use money more as they have more money, whereas the US has developed a reputation of using military force more often.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Good piece over at Lex’s place on the subject. Moral of the story is that you better be able to back it up…

  • Derrick

    Everyone believes in Reagan’s policy of peace through strength. So I am not surprised that as the US continues to flex its military muscle in Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan, every other country in the world will attempt to modernize its military just in case.

    I do like to look at things in perspective though. In terms of stick size and capability, the US stick definitely out-classes the Chinese stick, both conventionally and nuclear. So I usually equate China’s diplomatic statements to small man syndrome or that of a child crying because the child didn’t get what they want.

  • harry

    China dont need to field a navy to match the American one to win a war with america, Its called asymetric warfare. All American’s military base in asia is in range of Chinese missiles. China recently has grown in strength in terms of sea denial warfare. the DF-21D ASBM is an good example, plus anti-ship cruise missile and torpedos, it wont be hard to saturate the american missile defence sysetem and bam your george washington is a submarine. it will be stupid of america to fight against China at our-doorsteps. the only thing China needs todo is to attack vietnam using our superior navy, no need todo any amphibious landing to take back islands(they are so small few missiles will destroy any facility on that island) in south China sea. few barrage of rocket fire, tactical missile, and airbourn bombardment it wont take long to force vietnam to give up its claims to the islands. Meanwhile we can use our submarines in strategic choak points ambush american fleet if they interfre, plus land, aerial, and seabourn cruise missile and ballistic missiles will do the job of cripple or destory american fleets.

    China is not iraq, no ally will help america because they have to much economic ties with China(including america itself), it will be China calling the shots when to strik, so will america start a conflict with China over some tiny island? NO.

  • So harry is Chinese.

    I hope the Chinese leadership won’t misjudge us and miscalculate as badly as you have, harry. We *will* DEFEND “some tiny island” if China tries to take it by force … unless China agrees to a settlement agreeable to all the countries sharing claim to it … because we know that if we don’t the Chinese Dragon’s appetite will grow and there will be war anyway over ever bigger islands … like Taiwan.

    Again, you Chinese are a great people with a great power, and you ARE a superpower. If you continue to be patient, you’ll have Asia in your orbit anyway … legally … economically and politically.

    Impatience starts world wars.

    Do you understand what I am saying, harry?

  • Correction: … a great people with a great history.

    … as well as now being a superpower. YOU DON’T HAVE TO PROVE IT, harry.

  • 2nd correction: … a great people with a great culture … too.

  • Derrick

    Regardless of “harry”‘s statements, there is no reputable evidence to determine his/her’s citizenship. I interpreted those posts as “baiting”, as opposed to participation in an intelligent discussion on international naval strategy, but that’s just me.

  • As is true of Internet generally, we are left to take people at face value, unless they openly identify themselves as I do, derrick.

    harry’s understanding of English is good enough to get him understood here – *infinitely* better than my Chinese 🙂 – but is broken in places.

    Remember that I submitted a comment a week or so ago directly to the Chinese People’s Daily website that had the article quoting the PLA general and that may be eliciting response … which is a good, healthy, directly communicative thing.

    (In 1981, I carried a similarly cautionary personal message from the Pentagon’s pre-eminent wargamer over to the Soviets(‘ military mission on Belmont Road). He said he knew they did professional wargaming like we did but urged them to be careful: that false assumptions could produce results catastrophic for both our peoples.)

    And you can be sure the Chinese leadership and military are keenly interested in the feelings of America’s (pro-)naval community on these affairs … and some small island.

    As I have said from the first, I’m afraid the Chinese think we are as weak as we will ever be – like the Germans thought the Russians were as weak as they would ever be in summer 1941 – and are edging toward a superpower confrontation … and catastrophic miscalculation.

    People forget how easily and uncertainly a world war can happen.

    And, again, that would be a terminal tragedy for both our peoples.

  • Derrick

    Well…the previous post sounded more like baiting to me because there were no quantifiable facts in it…just supposition and what I interpret as “bragging”, that’s all.

    And that post certainly doesn’t reflect the historical behaviour of China. If anything China seems more focused inward and in growing its living standard as opposed to expanding outwards. China is still a developing economy with a lot of its people living below the poverty line.

    As for the World War 2 comparisons, well, they are invalid because any superpower confrontation would eventually lead to the use of nuclear weapons. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? It’s impossible to control war…once it starts, it escalates very quickly. And the US has a lot more nuclear weapons than China…

    Since the US is entering the discussions regarding the islands, so probably, as good negotiators should, China will make bold statements and provide offers the others can refuse…what compromises come from the discussions I expect to be very different than what anyone would anticipate.

    And finally, as was posted before, if China plays their cards smart, they will probably get all of Asia in their orbit anyway…with the people of Asia willingly supporting them…so they really have no incentive to waste money and lives on futile military excursions.

  • “As for the World War 2 comparisons, well, they are invalid because any superpower confrontation would eventually lead to the use of nuclear weapons. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?”

    Which was a superpower confrontation which did NOT eventually lead to nuclear war, thanks to Adlai Stevenson rallying world opinion to our side in the UN.

    And I fully agree that China would be making a truly terrible (and terminal) mistake opting for military aggression now, even though their Maoist militarists must feel very tempted by our seeming weakness – us being bled in our unwinnable Southwest Asian wars of attrition.

  • By the way, I am very proud that my late father served as a ranking NCO based in Dacca India (now Bangledesh) in the U.S. Army Air Force, which at great risk and with considerable losses was flying supplies to the Chinese over the Himalayas/Hump in the China-Burma-India (CBI)theater of operations.

    I would hope the Chinese will remember the Flying Tigers too, and that the American people like and admire them … and don’t want to have to fight another, even more terrible world war … unless they force us to do so.

  • Chuck Hill

    There always seems to be a dangerous period when rising powers become impatient. It happened with Germany and with Japan. If they would have just been patient, they would reaped the rewards of their populations’ labor and sacrifice, but they resorted to force and brought disaster down on their people.

    China seems to be in the process of creating a lot of enemies, where it is unnecessary. They seem to be unwilling to put their claim before a world court. They also don’t seem to accept the conventions of the UNCLOS to which I believe they are signer.

    Freedom of the Seas has been a constant of American foreign policy since the formation of the Republic. The Chinese have benefited from the trade it has fostered. They shouldn’t underestimate our commitment to the principle.

  • Very well written, Chuck Hill. Here’s hoping harry and his friends consider it closely.

  • China’s problem right now is it has climbed on a tightwire.

    If on one hand they beat their chests and reassert their claims too aggressively, they risk turning much of the world against them, which could jeopardize economic growth. If on the other hand they back down too much the CCP runs the risk of being percieved by their population as having overplayed their hand. Either way, they risk losing face with their internal audience, which is a very bad thing.