Media Conference Call: South China Sea

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In the wake of a tense ASEAN meeting, CFR fellow Joshua Kurlantzick and CSIS senior fellow Bonnie Glaser discuss the rising tensions between China and other Asian countries over the South China Sea and implications for U.S. foreign policy in the region.

OPERATOR: Excuse me, everyone. We now have our speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of the presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time instructions will be given if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn this conference call over to Mr. Robert McMahon. Sir, you may begin.

ROBERT MCMAHON: Well, thank you. And hello, everyone, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record media conference call. I'm Robert McMahon, editor of CFR.org, and I'm going to be moderating the call today, which is on tensions in the South China Sea.

Now, the region has been a potential flash point for a good part of this summer already, not helped by a recent divisive meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers in Cambodia, which was followed by, among other things, an announcement by China that it was raising a flag on an island in a newly creative administrative region known as Sansha.

So to drill down on what's going on, we are fortunate to have with us CFR fellow for Southeast Asia Joshua Kurlantzick, who is, among other things, author of a recent expert brief on the tensions, and Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of a CFR contingency planning memo this past spring which explores the potential for conflict in the South China Sea and policy options for U.S. -- for the United States in the region.

I want to have a kickoff question for both Josh and Bonnie, and then I would like to open up the questions over the next hour for our callers and listeners.

So starting with Josh, Josh, ASEAN was supposed to be one of the key instruments for helping resolve disputes over the South China Sea. How should we read this latest meeting in Cambodia?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: Not well. (Chuckles.) I think that it shows that ASEAN as an organization has fallen somewhere in between their original goals, which were modest, when the organization was founded more than four decades ago and the goals that some people in ASEAN would like for a more forceful, integrated organization that can provide leadership and specifically also have a secretary-general who can provide leadership. And they have not really reached that aim.

And the results of that are, it's hard for them to find consensus. But when they don't find consensus, they can't move forward on any issue. And even though they actually have a secretary-general now who's quite well-known and probably, I would say, the most forceful personality of the recent secretary-generals, they still can't really utilize him in any effective way. So it definitely shows the weaknesses of today's ASEAN.

MCMAHON: So even though they had a mechanism for dealing specifically with the South China Sea, they couldn't come to an agreement, at least at the communique -- on a communique.

And there was some follow-up intercession by Indonesia to try to help paper over differences. Can you talk a little bit about whether that meant anything?

KURLANTZICK: Well, I mean, I don't think it meant that much, except there was some face-saving. It did also show, I think, that one of the challenges, in the longer term, ASEAN's going to have is the more Indonesia sort of returns to its regional role as a significant power and needs to grow and also becomes more confident, Indonesia increasingly may find itself wanting to essentially opt out of ASEAN's -- not opt out of ASEAN, but go its own way in leadership.

I think you saw that a little bit in this extent, and the more that ASEAN fails to resolve this issue or any issue, I think you have an issue in which some of the more powerful countries are going to opt for other solutions to their problems. Certainly Indonesia. Singapore's already done that in some ways on several issues.

MCMAHON: OK. Well, thanks.

So Bonnie, can we follow up and talk about, then, China and why perhaps China has stepped up its assertiveness in the region? And also, to what extent is this settled policy for China in the region to sort of gradually ramp up its territorial assertiveness?

GLASER: I think it's important to look at how this has developed over the last several years. In 2009 and 2010, there were a spate of incidents where China was quite assertive, not just in the South China Sea, but also the East China Sea. And the Chinese did go around to -- they sent their diplomats to countries in the region to explore with them how they viewed China, and they really heard some, I think, sort of blistering critiques from countries in the region.

And I think that they tried to be restrained, they tried to get a handle on this issue. They had a senior official, Dai Bingguo, who's a state councilor, who was part in charge of a task force to better coordinate the different parts of the system that operate in the South China Sea -- you know, fishering -- fisheries, agriculture, the state administration, maritime administration. So there were many of these different organizations that were, to some extent, operating in a way that was not completely, I think, under the (center ?), but I don't think we can say that anymore.

I think that after a period of restraint -- you know, we did see, for example, the Chinese work out some understanding with Vietnam in October 2011 where they set up a hotline and they signed an agreement. They did defuse some of their tensions. But then things really flared up again with this Scarborough Shoal event. And you know, it -- I think from the Chinese point of view, they see the United States as emboldening both the Philippines and Vietnam. They say that they did not, of course, twist Cambodia's arm in Phnom Penh. And they ultimately think they're being taken advantage of.

But you know, if -- I think if you go around the region and you talk to every one of these actors today, you'll pretty much hear the same narrative. They all say they're acting defensively; they all say that they have very strong claims to sovereignty that they're not going to compromise on. And so it really is a very difficult situation to control now.

It's -- you know, China has been the provocateur in many ways: the recent declaration of the CNOOC blocks that are -- they overlay exactly on top of the blocks that Vietnam has been given out -- giving out for tenders in the last several years -- the declaration of this new military garrison on Sansha.

But China's not the only provocateur. There have been steps that have been taken by the other countries as well. The Philippines had arrested the fishermen and used a navy ship when moving into the shoal, which really took China by surprise, as that was seen as provocative by the Chinese. The -- Vietnam also passed its own military -- it's own law of the sea, if you will, to cover these areas. So we really are looking at, I think, a sort of tit-for-tat type situation.

And you know, China, I think, is now perhaps trying to figure out how to go forward in this. They don't want to have relations with their neighbors deteriorate. And they're going into the 18th Party Congress. I don't think we're going to see any substantial policy shift now, but I would hope that after the policy -- the -- excuse me, the 18th Party Congress concludes that there will be some further rethinking in Beijing about how to manage this issue in a way so it really does not push China's neighbors into the arms of the United States, which I think would be very negative for Chinese interests.

MCMAHON: Has it risen to the level yet of the U.S. and China needing to deal with this, you know, with each other and not necessarily in a regional forum?

GLASER: Well, I think the U.S. and China are already dealing with each other bilaterally. In fact, this was one of the main causes of the establishment of what we call the Asia-Pacific Consultations between the U.S. and China because in July of 2010 after Secretary Clinton had spoken out so forcefully at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, the Chinese complained that the U.S. had basically taken Beijing by surprise, had not coordinated and consulted in advance. And so they asked that this mechanism be set up in order to have better coordination.

And I think both of our countries have been using it quite effectively. We've already had three rounds. And of course, there are other bilateral dialogue mechanisms as well in which the U.S. and China talk about the South China Sea issue. So I think there is quite a bit of consultation now on the bilateral level. We don't only address this in multilateral settings.

MCMAHON: Well, thank you. So we have a number of people on the call. And Josh Kurlantzick and Bonnie Glaser have nicely framed the issue for us. So I'd like to open it up, Operator, to our callers for any opening questions on the issue of tensions in the South China Sea.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. At this time we will open the floor for questions. (Gives queuing instructions.) We are now holding for questions.

Our first question comes from Weihua Chen from China Daily.

QUESTIONER: Hi. This is Chen Weihua. I want to ask about, you know, what kind of a role U.S. should play in order not to sort of complicate the situation, because I think, Bonnie, you are talking about, you know, China had a number of provocative navy action, but also Philippines, that Vietnam had some provocative action. But it seems that, you know, the Chinese see the U.S. as always on the other side, not on the Chinese side, on this issue. So even you said the others also have provocative, you know, actions. So what kind of a -- you know, you think action U.S. should take? Or should the U.S. be involved or, you know -- yeah, that's my question.

MCMAHON: OK, Bonnie, do you want to take that one?

GLASER: Sure, happy to. I think that many Chinese accuse the United States of seeking to drive a wedge between China and its neighbors and seeking to increase tensions in the region so that the U.S. can somehow benefit from that. I think that's a very incorrect narrative.

First, of course, I would say the U.S. has a number of interests in the region: obviously the degree of commercial activity in the region; our ally Japan to a large extent depends on these waters; we insist on freedom of navigation and safe commercial passages for all countries.

But the point is that the United States, I believe, is trying to play a positive role in encouraging a code of conduct, for example, and encouraging that that code of conduct have a dispute settlement mechanism. I believe that that would be a very positive development if it were in fact to be agreed upon. In the recent incident in Scarborough Shoal, the U.S. actually played an instrumental role in trying to help Beijing and Manila defuse tensions.

So I think that this is perhaps not well-understood, or maybe even deliberately distorted sometimes in the Chinese media. I see the U.S. as seeking to preserve peace and stability and not take sides. It's very clear that the U.S., for example, has not said that the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines covers this disputed area. The U.S. has dealt with this very, very carefully in its messaging to the Philippines and to the rest of the region. So I guess I would dispute your premise.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question. Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Jenny Nguyen (sp) from Voice of Vietnamese Americans.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Thank you. This is Jenny Nguyen (sp) with Voice of Vietnamese Americans. We, on the other hand, feel that the U.S. has not support the ASEAN country adequately against Chinese assertions, because look at what had happened now, right now, in the South Asia Sea: China kept increasing its aggressiveness. Recently it has attacked many of Vietnamese fishermen boat, and also as the CNOOC has put out a bid on nine blocks on the Vietnamese EEZ. And up until now we haven't heard anything from the international community, ASEAN or the U.S. So I would say --

MCMAHON: So is there a question, please?

QUESTIONER: So I would say that -- would you think that the U.S. should step up a little bit and help to mitigate the tension in the South China Sea to keep the peace and security there?

MCMAHON: Bonnie, you treated that a bit -- Josh, you want to take a swing at this one?

KURLANTZICK: I mean, I think the U.S. has played a relatively appropriate role in the dispute. I think that the correct organization to mediate would be ASEAN and the -- and the -- on the -- and the Chinese sitting down together, as they have said they would do many times, and at some point working out a written code of conduct.

MCMAHON: Thank you.

Bonnie, anything to add?

GLASER: Well, I would just add that the question is evidence of the fact that there are some actors in the South China Sea and in ASEAN that would like the United States to play a more forceful role to counter what they see as a greater Chinese assertiveness. There are other countries in the region that want the U.S. to play a less forceful role.

And there are 10 members of ASEAN, and of course the United States first and foremost wants to bolster ASEAN unity. But each country or different groupings of countries would like the U.S. to do different things. And this really poses a dilemma for the United States.

And of course, we don't want to alienate China. The goal is not to have a zero-sum competition between the U.S. and China in the region. So this is, I think, a real challenge for the United States.

KURLANTZICK: I would like to just -- I want to just add to that that it's true, obviously, every country has their own interests, and the countries in ASEAN all have somewhat different interests. But the challenge that they face together is most of the countries alone have little regional power, and in order to have significant influence regionally on this issue and on others, they need to find an effective consensual position. And even though they all have different interests, without some sort of effective consensual position, they are going to not really punch at or above their weight. And so that is their central problem, and they do, to some extent, need to figure out how they can either put aside some of their different interests or work together more effectively.

MCMAHON: And as you mentioned, Josh, in your previous post, the expert brief and so forth, obviously there is a -- these countries have strong and growing economic ties. This is one of the largest trading lanes in the world. So there is a compelling reason to get that sorted out as well and not to come to blows to -- that -- which would cause so many problems across the board.

KURLANTZICK: Yeah. I mean, I think that China's capable of -- clearly of having pragmatic economic relations with countries while they have somewhat complicated security relations. But I just think, long term, even though some of the ASEAN countries have different interests, the organization is not going to meet the potential that at least some of the more faster-moving organization members want unless they can figure out how to blend all those interests into one position that they can all stand on and present to China and to the world.

MCMAHON: Thanks.

Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. (Gives queuing instructions.) Our next question comes from Gary Gentile from Platts.

QUESTIONER: Hi. You know, you mentioned several times the CNOOC offering up these blocks, these Vietnamese blocks that lie within its exclusive economic zone. You know, what do you think the Obama administration should do? You know, ExxonMobil is operating some of these Vietnamese blocks. Do you think that the Obama administration should -- (off mic) -- ExxonMobil in case China goes ahead with this bidding plan?

MCMAHON: Bonnie, you want to take that?

GLASER: I didn't hear the last part of the question. Could you please repeat it?

QUESTIONER: Sure. Do you think that the U.S. should step in and do something to protect ExxonMobil, who's operating in the area, should China go ahead with this -- with their bidding plan?

GLASER: Well, I think the real interesting part of that question is really whether China can go ahead with this bidding plan. In other words, China is tendering bids, but very few international oil companies are going to want to participate in that bidding process. They may actually go so far as to buy the bids themselves to see what the Chinese are up to.

But I think companies are very, very leery of getting involved in areas that are so hotly disputed. So I think this is more a statement that the Chinese are making rather than a serious expectation that there will be any real international bidding that would then result in drilling in areas that the Vietnamese are already drilling. And you know, if you look at the map really closely, you'll see that a great deal of this overlaps.

But you -- if you measure it from the Vietnamese coastline and -- you know, you'll see it's within their claimed 200-mile exclusive economic zone. If you measure it from a potential exclusive economic zone that -- 200 miles that could be generated from parts of the Spratlys, you know, you could see where there could be some parts of it that could be within what would be a Chinese-claimed EEZ.

Some of the areas -- what I'm saying is that some of them actually overlap, and some don't. But this is -- the areas that are the most hotly disputed, where the drilling is actually taking place, are close to Vietnamese shores. And I don't think you're going to see any oil companies that are going to want to get involved in that on the side of China.

MCMAHON: Thanks for the question.

Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Again, if you would like to ask a question, please press star, one. Our next question comes from Michael Mosettig from PBS "Online NewsHour."

MCMAHON: Yes, go ahead, please.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, thank you. How big a bump in the road was it that the ASEAN conference collapsed in such obvious partisanship? And how much does this show that this particular grouping is not going to be the vehicle through which any kind of resolution of this issue is going to happen?

MCMAHON: Josh, you touched on that a little bit at the beginning. Can you talk a little bit more?

KURLANTZICK: Well, in terms of a first point, I mean, you could look at it a couple different ways. One way you could look at it is that ASEAN is now increasingly populated by -- (inaudible) -- mature democracies. And they can have disputes and still agree to work together in the future -- the same way, for example, the prime minister -- the chancellor of Germany and the president of France openly criticized the United States' decision to go to war in Iraq, but we still have close ties with Germany and France. That would be the optimistic view, I think.

I think the problem is that ASEAN hasn't really had much experience in which they have this type of open disagreement. The style of meetings is very informal and collegial and, frankly, if you go and cover the meeting, pretty boring. And if they are going to build up a style of more open debate and disagreement, then in some ways that would be welcome, but they have not done that in the past. So that's why it seems like an enormous shock.

I don't think that one dispute and one failure to have a communique at a meeting means that the organization is not going to continue to be a primary vehicle to express the interests of the nations on the Southeast Asian side that have claims, or even that they're not going to be the primary vehicle for greater Asian integration. They have to be the vehicle for most of these countries -- (inaudible). And I think that some of the ASEAN players, particularly Vietnam -- particularly Vietnam, and also the Philippines, but the Philippines is in a weaker position, but certainly Vietnam -- realize that they need to utilize ASEAN more effectively.

So I don't think it's the end of ASEAN's role in mediating the dispute. It's just a bump.

MCMAHON: Bonnie, anything to add?

GLASER: Sure, just briefly. And I would agree with Josh, but I guess I would add that ASEAN has always basically taken the lowest-common-denominator position. And they could have done that this time. In fact, I would say that the six-point statement that was negotiated by the Indonesian foreign minister after the collapse of the meeting basically represents the lowest common denominator position. But it was at that meeting that both Vietnam and the Philippines really wanted do to -- (audio break) -- specific incidents. And they were intransigent. They would not drop their insistence on mentioning the recent incidents that had taken place.

And maybe this is a maturation of ASEAN. And maybe it shouldn't be portrayed as, you know, a weakening or a demonstration of disunity. Maybe this organization is now beginning to come into its own. And if so, that's a positive thing.

MCMAHON: Thank you for that question, Michael.

Operator, another question, please.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Yem Ying Chan (ph) from Hong Kong Phoenix TV.

QUESTIONER: Hi. This is Yem Ying Chan (ph) from Hong Kong Phoenix TV. And Vietnam president just visit Russia, and then he said he will let the Russia set up -- (inaudible) -- in Cam Ranh Bay. And I want to know that this kind of action will -- (inaudible) -- South China Sea. And the other question is that the U.S. National Security Council adviser, Donilon, just visit China. And will this kind of visiting could, like, ease your concerns or questions between U.S. and China on South China Sea's issues?

MCMAHON: So I didn't quite get the first question. I'm not sure if our experts did as well. Could you repeat the first -- (inaudible)?

KURLANTZICK: Yeah, I didn't --

QUESTIONER: Oh. The first one is Vietnam president just visited Russia last week, and then they will let Russia set up -- (inaudible) -- in Cam Ranh Bay. And I want to know that this kind of action will raise the tension within the South China Sea -- (inaudible).

GLASER: (Inaudible.)

MCMAHON: So a Russian-Vietnamese agreement that will -- that could complicate the situation by allowing Russian ships in Cam Ranh Bay, is that the question?


MCMAHON: OK. And then the second one is about the recent visit of U.S. National Security Adviser Donilon to China?




MCMAHON: Josh, you want to take the one on Vietnam?

KURLANTZICK: Yeah, sure. I mean, to the first point, I think it speaks to Vietnam's very savvy utilization of many different partners in order to back itself up. Vietnam is in a stronger position than the Philippines, simply because the Philippines for years -- the AFP, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, basically did almost nothing to upgrade their navy, and now they just suddenly realized, like, oh my god, we have a horrible navy.

But Vietnam is still in a very challenging position, but they have done a very good job of, in their security environment, bringing in many partners. And of course, we here focus on the U.S., but they have done a very good job of building their relationship with India and the Indian navy -- Russia's not a new relationship for Vietnam -- but with Russia, with the Singaporeans, with Japan and increasingly with the Australians.

And I think because the countries in the region are still not that confident in ASEAN, this is a type of -- (inaudible) -- Vietnam and the Philippines have both been increasingly utilizing a web of ad hoc bilateral relationships in order to shore up their security. You see the Philippines is now essentially going to allow Australian troops to come and help train.

I think the model that Vietnam has utilized in building this kind of web is probably going to be copied to some extent by the Philippines, obviously the Philippines significantly looking at the U.S., but they're going to look to other ad hoc partners as well.

MCMAHON: That's interesting.

Bonnie, did you want to address at all the contacts with National Security Adviser Donilon in China?

GLASER: Sure. If I could just add to the -- to the question on Russia-Vietnam first --


GLASER: -- Vietnam has made it clear that they will provide access to any navy that wants to use Cam Ranh Bay for maintenance services, not as a base. And so Russia is taking advantage of that. So probably will other navies, and China as well. So that doesn't surprise me.

I mean, I would look at this in the context of really Russia's foreign policy, where the Russians are seeking to revitalize some of their old relationships when they used to have bases in Cuba, Vietnam -- for example, they want to start using their navy more and having places where they can -- that they can go get maintenance and, you know, have R&R, replenishment, et cetera. This -- (chuckling) -- so this says to me something more about Russia than it does about Vietnam. I think the Vietnamese are perfectly happy to make money from those countries that want to come in and use their facilities.

On the Tom Donilon visit, our national security adviser addressed a very broad agenda during this visit in -- and I think that the South China Sea, although -- I know was discussed in a number of those meetings, was certainly not the focus of the visit. I think there was far more time that was spent, for example, on Syria, on Iran than was on the South China Sea, in part because the U.S. has been talking with China about South China in so many different venues.

But if you're asking if there was any resolution, I think the answer is certainly no. The U.S. and China continue to try to work together to defuse tensions, to exchange views on what can be done -- to talk about, for example, the content of a code of conduct -- but I don't think that anything was resolved in this visit.

MCMAHON: Thank you. Thank you for those questions.

Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Mei Lei (ph) from Radio Free Asia.

QUESTIONER: Hello. From one to 10, how do you rate your hope for ASEAN as a bloc to solve the problems? And could you please give some (suggestions ?), you know, to reduce the tensions in the region?

MCMAHON: OK. So Josh, another ASEAN question starting out with a one to 10 rating on its ability to help resolve the issue.

KURLANTZICK: I'm sorry. I didn't understand. A one to 10 rating?

MCMAHON: On one to 10, what do you see as --

Q; Right. From --

MCMAHON: Sorry. Go ahead with the question.

QUESTIONER: From scale one to 10 -- one is the lowest -- how do you rate your hopes for ASEAN as a bloc to solve the problems?

KURLANTZICK: In the future? How do I -- how do I rate their ability in the future


KURLANTZICK: -- or how they've done so far?

QUESTIONER: Let's say how they've done so far. (Laughter.)

KURLANTZICK: OK. How they have done so far --

MCMAHON: Kurlantzick report card, here.

KURLANTZICK: -- I mean, I think maybe three. I mean, ASEAN has played a weak hand, a relatively weak hand, relatively weakly, in my opinion. But you know, they have at the same time been able to, I think, pragmatically work with China on economic issues and -- over the last 10 years -- and continue to move forward on regional integration while at the same time this dispute has gone on. I think that does say something about the pragmatism and the thoughtfulness and the prioritization of a number of these ASEAN countries.

So I think they get a decent grade on that, because I certainly think there are other countries, including sometimes the U.S., where such an open sore might be a major barrier to economic ties. So I think ASEAN has done a good job in that. But now when the rubber hits the road and they need to collaborate more effectively to push towards a real code of conduct, I don't think they've done a very good job of that. But as I said before, it's possible we're going to see ASEAN transform into an organization with more open dialogue, dispute, a more kind of democratic organization and that might be good in the long term.

In terms of --

MCMAHON: Bonnie, would you like to address --

KURLANTZICK: Sorry, what?

GLASER: Why don't I address the second question on what should be done, and perhaps you can look at some of the recommendations that I outlined in the contingency planning memorandum that I wrote for CFR, which is called, "Armed Clash in the South China Sea." And I lay out some preventive measures as well as some mitigating steps that could be taken.

I think, in the near term, promoting regional risk reduction measures are very important, and that is actually one of the things that was included in the 2002 DOC, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. There were some confidence-building measures that simply have not been implemented. And the idea, of course, of the Code of Conduct, the COC, is to make these things, these steps, legally binding, mandatory, and then create some type of dispute settlement mechanism, so if there are incidents such as just took place in Scarborough Shoal, that there would be some kind of mechanism through which the parties could take the dispute.

I also advocate a South China Sea coast guard forum, which could be modeled after the North Pacific Coast Guard forum. And that cooperates on a multitude of maritime security and legal issues, so there could be more information sharing, knowledge of best practices, for example, through such a mechanism.

But you know, there are a number of ideas that I put out in that -- in that memorandum, and there are, of course, other ideas that are being put forward by other experts. I think that, you know, maritime disputes take place all over the world. We can learn from some of the examples that have been -- that have taken place elsewhere and how they have been addressed. And of course, I think for the United States we should ratify UNCLOS, as it gives us a seat at the table and a voice on the issue, which today we do not have.

MCMAHON: That's the Law of the Sea treaty that sort of weaves its way through this whole dispute as well, yeah?

GLASER: Right, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

MCMAHON: Josh, did you want to add something before I move on?

KURLANTZICK: No, the only thing I would add is that I completely concur that we need to sign.

MCMAHON: Thank you. Thanks for that question.

Operator, do we have another question?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Again, if you would like to ask a question, please press star, one. Our next question comes from John Reed from Foreign Policy.

QUESTIONER: You guys actually just answered my question.

MCMAHON: Oh, great.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Wai Chin (ph) from China Daily.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, hi again. I think you also talked a little bit -- but I just want you to elaborate, you know, what kind of wisdom you think leaders of each nation need that -- you know, I think the tension arise mostly because each country have this group, you know, with a very strong nationalistic sentiment. So leaders don't want to appear to lose face, you know, among the -- these groups in each country. So what kind of wisdom do you think, you know, would -- needed to find a solution so they don't lose face among their own people?

MCMAHON: Bonnie, could you maybe take that on and maybe flavor it a little bit with a discussion of -- to the -- to the extent the South China Sea tensions have taken on a nationalist tint in China? Not just China, I know.

GLASER: Well, I would certainly -- I would agree with the -- with the caller's question regarding nationalist sentiment being high in every country -- certainly Vietnam, the Philippines and China. This has really become imbued with a sense of, this is -- these are our rights. And it's become a -- it's become a very sensitive issue.

And I believe the blogosphere all over China -- this is -- the Chinese citizens -- "netizens" are calling for their government to defend their interests. And I do believe that the Chinese leadership is very wary of being seen as too soft and not protecting Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is always a very major issue, I think, for the Chinese leadership.

But having said that, I would add that there are instances in which the Chinese leadership seems to pay very little attention, if any, to the attitude of Chinese "netizens." And I would cite as an example a recent fishing incident between North Korea and China, where the North Koreans actually went into Chinese waters. They arrested Chinese fishermen; they held them for, I think, almost two weeks; severely mistreated them. And of course eventually they were -- they were released. There was quite a lot of very negative commentary on the blogosphere about this incident from Chinese citizens. And obviously Chinese leaders don't take that into account when they formulate their policy toward North Korea.

So while I think this is a factor, it is important for the Chinese government to not simply shape their policy or be -- or be led by the nose -- (chuckles) -- by the "netizens" of China. Leaders must make policy in -- I believe, based on their national interests. And so I don't think that they can just hide behind the "netizens," and I don't think it's just an issue of losing face. And I do think that all governments in this case are basing their policy on more than just nationalist sentiment, although that is a factor.

MCMAHON: Josh, do you want to treat the nationalism issue?

KURLANTZICK: Sure. I mean, I wanted to just add two things to that, one of which is, I think, probably self-evident. But the way that it's discussed in the Southeast Asian and Chinese press, to the extent that I would follow that -- it often makes it seems like the United States has the same public pressure for whatever role the U.S. is going to play in the South China Sea as some of these other countries. And that's just obviously not true. The number of people in the U.S. who pay any attention to the South China Sea is still pretty small.

But I would say that I do think there's a distinction between some of the ASEAN countries in the way that public pressure is interpreted. And that is that -- I mean, in Vietnam, regime legitimacy has to rest on economic growth and to some extent on the parties' credentials as a unifying force and on nationalism, whereas in the Philippines you have a much more open, democratic system. Certainly President Aquino has taken some strong steps, and he's not going to back down on certain issues, but at the same time, it's a much more mature political system and so I think public pressure works in a number of different ways and the government has -- is less strait-jacketed by sort of nationalism, potentially, because its legitimacy can rest on a number of different foundations in the Philippines.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.

Just a reminder to all: This is a CFR on-the-record media conference call on tensions in the South China Sea, with Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Joshua Kurlantzick, fellow for Southeast Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Operator, do you have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Matthew Lee from Inner City Press.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Thanks a lot. I cover the U.N., so I guess I wanted to ask you whether you can see beyond just the fact that the Law of the Sea is called the U.N. Law of the Sea. Do you see any role at all for the U.N. -- there was a recent General Assembly debate here, and the Philippines called it the West Philippines Sea, and China took a lot of umbrage. I guess they're fighting a kind of defensive fight here.

But do you see any role for the U.N. or -- the secretary-general recently visited China. It's not clear if he raised it. Does the U.N. itself have any role that it could play in trying to reduce these tensions?

MCMAHON: Bonnie, do you want to start off with that?

GLASER: Well, I see the U.N. as overwhelmed by such a full plate of issues and the crisis ongoing in Syria. Obviously, there have to be some priorities. I would see the South China Sea as pretty low on the list of priorities. Traditionally, I don't think that the U.N. has really ever played a role in South China Sea issues. I could be wrong, but I don't recall any U.N. resolutions when China used force in the South China Sea, for example, in the Mischief Reef incident in 1988. Maybe Josh could recall. I don't recall the U.N. playing a role. So I would be surprised if the Philippines were able to get any traction for discussing this among the members of the U.N. Security.

Obviously, it's really an issue that is in the South China Sea, and therefore I think the United States -- again, as I think I said earlier -- doesn't view this as a U.S.-China issue. Taking it to the U.N. would make it seem like a U.S.-China issue because none of the other permanent Security Council members really have any stake on this issue at all. And so I think we prefer to let the regional states to take the lead and try to help bolster their position, their capacity to defend themselves, as we are doing with the Philippines, for example, but I don't think that Washington would want to see this raised in the U.N. So that would be my take on it.

MCMAHON: Josh -- (inaudible)?

KURLANTZICK: I completely agree that I don't think you're going to see the U.N. -- the only thing I would -- involved. The only thing I would add is just that, you know, I do think the Philippines is in the weakest position. Like I said before, they did a poor job of maintaining and upgrading their forces. They were consumed for a long period by domestic politics. They have to use the AFP to fight one -- several domestic insurgencies.

On the other hand, the Philippines is the most open of these countries, and so I just think, you know, invoking the U.N. -- there are a lot of other things you could look to. The Philippines has thrown everything at the wall because they're in the weakest position and they want to see what sticks. So, you know, you also have senior Philippine national security officials coming repeatedly to the U.S. and asking for certain types of upgrades. You have them in the past sort of trying to maneuver the U.S. into confirming that because of our relationship with them in the past, the South China Sea would come under that.

So, you know, I see that as a continuation of, you know, they're doing their best to play the weakest hand.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question, Matthew.

Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question's from John Reed from Foreign Policy.

QUESTIONER: How does the U.S. shift towards the Pacific impact the whole situation in the South China Sea? I mean, we're basing LCSs in Singapore. We may start some more serious rotations into the Philippines. How does all of that play into this mix right now?

MCMAHON: So Josh, could you take the first stab at the U.S. --

KURLANTZICK: Sure. I mean, I think definitely we certainly have that in mind in that I don't -- I think it was no accident where we've had some of our exercises with the Philippines in terms of their proximity to South China Sea. You know, I think that we are definitely walking a fine balance with some of these countries like Singapore, in which our ties are increasingly close; they're the best in the region. And Singapore, I think, is walking farther away from the role it has historically played in which it was really close to the U.S. but it sort of publicly didn't talk about it and was -- still tried to be a balancer. And I think we're moving with them closer to a more traditional alliance.

And I am -- I think that it certainly heightens -- although we don't -- Bonnie says we don't want this -- certainly the whole idea of the pivot, whether we wanted to or not, heightened the idea that the U.S. and China are in -- headed toward some sort of potential standoff at some point.

MCMAHON: Bonnie, would you like to follow up?

GLASER: Sure. You know, I think that the U.S. pivot to Asia is first and foremost about providing strategic reassurance to countries of the region who are increasingly uneasy about what kind of power China will be as it becomes more powerful in the region. Countries have seen how China is using, for example, its growing economic power to coerce countries of the region, as we've seen them done -- do recently with the Philippines and in 2010 with Japan. So as countries are worried about U.S. staying power, about whether or not there will be a counterweight to China, this is really, I think, what the United States is trying to do. We are trying to say, yes, we will -- we will be there to ensure peace and security in the region. And that -- it's problematic because we don't want to embolden other countries to engage in a confrontation with China. To the extent that they do, I would say that's an unintended consequence of the pivot to Asia. And perhaps some of the actions taken by the Philippines might not have been taken if they -- if it -- this series of events had taken place at a time where the United States was not seeking to refocus on or rebalance to Asia.

And the United States is clearly looking to expand our access in the Philippines, and therefore when we're asked by President Aquino to say something more forcefully about how we will defend the Philippines if it's attacked, this puts the U.S. in a very difficult position. Of course, we don't want to give China blank check, and we don't want to -- it to leave the Philippines in a weak position. But at the same time, we don't want to tell the Philippines: We've got your back. So this is a -- you know, this is complicated by the fact that the United States is seeking to reassure the countries of the region that we will be there to help support peace and stability, freedom of navigation and these other interests that we share with so many countries in the region.

MCMAHON: Thank you.

Operator, is there another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, our next question comes Jenny Nguyen (sp) from Voice of Vietnamese-Americans.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. So I would like to take this to the international issue. We've been talking about trying to not making U.S. and China become direct competitors in the region, because that seemed to raise tensions. And can we build up the issue -- the view that this is international? And instead of having just ASEAN talking to China -- because it hasn't worked -- can we include other international partners in it such as Japan, India, (Australia ?) and many others, EU even?

KURLANTZICK: Well, Bonnie, you addressed the U.N. side of it pretty effectively. Do you want to talk about any others in the region are expanding their possible role?

GLASER: Well, there's already been some involvement by other countries. I'm again going back to July 2010, the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi. A large number of countries spoke out. And included in that were, I think, you know, Australia and other countries -- I think at the East Asia Summit we are, to some extent, talking about South China Sea. And so we have Australia, India, New Zealand present as well.

Japan, of course, has also spoken out. Japan is quite concerned about China's behavior in the South China Sea because they view this as an indicator of what China will do in the East China Sea in the -- in the future, which is of course closer to Japan, as well as the fact that if there is any challenge to commercial shipping in the South China Sea, as I mentioned, this would very much affect their interest.

So in a sense, I would say it's already internationalized in some slices of the issue. When it comes to resolution of the territorial disputes themselves, that's where I think that it's just really the claimants that need to work this out. The United States, of course, doesn't take a position on any of these territorial disputes, and neither do other countries. And while we can sit in the -- on the outside and encourage these countries to take their disputes to an international mediation or something like that, that's -- ultimately, this is only something that the claimants themselves can decide.

And so where it is necessary to have other governments involved, I think we're seeing that. And I, for example, would like to see a little bit more on code of conduct issues. But many countries have already spoken out who are not claimants that we should have a binding and -- a code of conduct that actually has teeth, as opposed to a -- simply a restatement of the 2002 DOC, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

So this is -- you know, there are a number of aspects of the issue that are internationalized, perhaps should be further internationalized, but not the settlement of the -- of the disputes themselves.

MCMAHON: Josh, anything more on the broader regional role?

KURLANTZICK: I think that that's a pretty comprehensive answer. I just wanted to add that I think that if they were able to make progress -- real progress, you could have a more substantial role for some other countries, not even necessarily those countries that were mentioned, just other countries in other parts of the world that had resolved maritime disputes and could provide some specific technical expertise of the ways they did it. But I think at this point, particularly China, but even some of the other major Southeast Asian countries -- not the Philippines, but some of the others -- the more actors you bring in, the more reticent they are to be able to do anything or the -- so -- and also, I mean, I think some of those actors like the EU, you know, is far -- it's far from their priorities. They got a lot of serious problems themselves at this point.

MCMAHON: Operator, are there any other calls at this point?

OPERATOR: We do have another question from Mai Lai (ph) from Radio Free Asia.

QUESTIONER: A new CSIS study urged Mr. Panetta to send more Marines and attack subs to the Asia-Pacific. Why is it important? And would it cause more -- you know, cause more tensions in the region?

MCMAHON: Bonnie, do you want to take that?

GLASER: Well, sure. First I'd have to say that I haven't yet read the CSIS study. And from the reports that I've seen, we were -- the authors of this study were specifically encouraging that more Marines be deployed in South Korea. Obviously, we are already rebalancing, if you will, our deployment of Marines. We'll be deploying more in Guam as well as in Darwin, Australia. And there are specific scenarios in which Marines are really important for regional security.

And I would mention that that's not just in a conflict, but in peacetime. We've seen the Marines be very, very involved in Operation Tomodachi in the -- in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami, of course before that in Indonesia. So there's many challenges that are posed by disasters that the Marines are immediately deployed and play a very important role in. In a potential conflict, certainly with North Korea, Marines would be very important.

So overall, the U.S. Marine Corps is downsizing, and so the real question is where you're going to get the biggest bang for the buck, where you need to have more deployed, and if you have them in the region, where in the region; how should they be rebalanced? In the past we've had most of our Marines in Japan. And so, you know, these are -- these are important questions for the U.S. As we go to forward, as we cut our defense spending, we have to make very important judgements on how we're going to spend our defense dollars so that we get the most benefit from them.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question. We've a few more minutes left, and I can try to take one or two more questions, if possible. Operator, is there another question?

OPERATOR: Yes. We do have another follow-up question with Jenny Nguyen (sp) from Voice of Vietnamese Americans.


QUESTIONER: Yes. A follow-up with a question and Bonnie's answer. So would that be potentially we have international team of coast guards -- like we may include such countries as Norway, any countries from the EU who could benefit from this -- to provide shippings and also guarding the coastline and not be one of the claimants, so that they can be independent?

MCMAHON: So your question is about an international coast guard, did you say, or coalition of the willing?

QUESTIONER: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Potentially -- so they take away the burden -- or the share the burden with the U.S., and also they be independently acting against all the claimants. So that they're -- they be oversighted (ph) of the violations and preventing it, and also enforcing the COC (ph) or DOC (ph) -- (inaudible) -- in that effect.

MCMAHON: Is that feasible, Bonnie and Josh?

GLASER: Well, I don't think it's probably feasible to get a country like Norway involved in the South China Sea. Norway has obvious maritime interests, but I don't think they extend to the South China Sea. They would have an interest in overall peace and security, but for their coast guard it's pretty far away. I mean, generally these kind of coast guard forms are regionally based. And we already have cooperations throughout the Asia-Pacific region. So I think having coast guards that involve other countries but are really located in the region, would make much more sense.

KURLANTZICK: Yeah. And I think also that a number of those countries -- you know, you're not talking about countries with enormous assets. And so -- I mean, they may be wealthy countries, but they don't necessarily have the assets to spend them in their own regional issues -- like, for example of Norway, the Arctic -- and then also devote more resources to an issue that's pretty far removed from them.

MCMAHON: Thank you. And I think at this point we're going to wrap this very interesting one hour, on-the-record media conference call. We promised to drill down on the South China Sea tensions. I think you can say we definitely got into a number of specific elements, but also some very important broader points raised by both Joshua Kurlantzick, CFR fellow for Southeast Asia, and Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I want to thank both of our experts for joining us and for all of you on the call.

This concludes this media conference call.


GLASER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This concludes today's conference. You may disconnect your lines now.







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