The United States could not remain indifferent to the Chinese action of establishing a garrison on a remote island in the South China Sea to back up its territorial claims. Continued American silence would have been interpreted by the countries that America would like to draw into a system of alliances and understandings to counterbalance China, as intolerable weakness.
Therefore on Friday, the United States responded, but deliberately used low profile spokesperson, Patrick Ventrell, Acting Deputy Spokesperson from the Office of Press Relations. rather than Hillary Clinton or one of her ranking deputies.
We do not take a position on competing territorial claims over land features and have no territorial ambitions in the South China Sea; however, we believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and without the use of force… In particular, China's upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region… We continue to urge all parties to clarify and pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law, including the Law of the Sea Convention.
If the United States thought that such a low-key reaction would be enough to reassure her Pacific allies, while not ruffling too many feathers in Beijing, it was proven wrong. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called in a senior American diplomat for a tongue lashing and the official Chinese news agency Xinhua made short work of the American pretensions of neutrality.
Although Washington claims that it does not take a position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it selectively takes sides in these disputes. By doing so, Washington intends to alienate China from countries around the South China Sea.
The Chinese are correct. Once the United States invokes the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), disputing China's historic claims to the entire South China Sea, the United States is effectively siding with the other side. UNCLOS recognizes the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of coastal states and this essentially makes the case for countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and others.
Xinhua also recalls Hillary Clinton's declaration in July 2010 that the US had a "national interest" in the South China Sea, meaning that the United States could not call itself a disinterested party. Also brought up was the redeployment of the U.S. Navy, shifting forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific, presumably to counterbalance China.
The article in the Chinese news agency concluded with a reminder to the United States:
The United States and China are the two biggest economies in the world and two most important players in the Asia-Pacific. The two countries share wide-ranging common interests in the region and their relations should by no means become a zero-sum game.
Against the backdrop of global financial and economic turbulence, Washington and Beijing should work together to maintain stability of the Asia-Pacific region, which serves as an engine to the fragile world economic recovery.
The Chinese are essentially saying that the United States needs them to emerge from its economic morass, so instead of hiding behind other Southeast Asian countries, it should strike a deal with China that allows both sides to protect their interests across the board.
Beijing has put the ball back in Barack Obama's court. The administration must now choose between the system of relations that it has built up in the Pacific, one that has been considered an achievement of the Obama administration in foreign policy, and good relations with the People's Republic of China. It cannot have things both ways.