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Friday, December 4, 2015

The ASEAN, APEC, Summits: China’s Ambiguous South Seas Elephant in the Room

The 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was wrapped up for now, last month in Malaysia. And the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (APEC) is about to come to a conclusion by the end of this December.  The ongoing and uncomfortable Chinese elephant in the room at both Asian summits has indisputably been the South Sea Islands crisis. China’s surrounding neighbors of Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, plus the small nation of Brunei with its 100 miles of coastline along the Asian waterway, all have separate claims against China over either one, or part of the large group of strategic, mainly uninhabitable islands. The potential political powder-keg over the waterway at the now completed ASEAN summit and the current APEC gathering of nations in the Philippines has caused allot of embarrassment for China over the contentious issue. Compounding China’s uncomfortable presence at the two Asian conventions has been the attending U.S. President, Barack Obama, who has been steadfastly promoting U.S. interests over the disputed waterway behind China’s back, and also behind the scenes at both summits.

President Obama - "For the sake of regional stability the claimants should halt reclamation, construction and militarization of disputed areas," as reported by the Guardian.

A Strategic DistractionThe territorial bickering over the Islands between the West and China has continually distracted both the Asian summits from their intended social agendas.  The ASEAN association’s efforts to “realize” its member communities and enhancing its role in Asia’s regional architecture, has been dramatically underscored by Obama’s presence, and the South Sea dispute. The crisis has  also overshadowed APEC’s aims of inclusive regional Asian growth, and the association’s multinational aspirations of the economic integration of Asia. The recent terrorist attacks in Lebanon and Paris by ISIS, have also effectively allowed China to capitalize on the recent attacks by deflecting the two summits potential negative comments towards China on the South Sea issue, by highlighting instead international concerns over global terrorism. 

A Determined AggressorChina’s stranglehold on the small group of islands will gain the superpower more control over several  advantages in the region. Possession of the islands would not only fortify China’s territorial shipping hold on the key Asian waterway, but it would also allow the country to “Shanghai” more fishing rights as well. The group of small islands cannot hold enough physical armed forces for China to be able to hang onto the disputed seas if it was significantly militarily challenged, especially by the United States. But, China is certainly capable of causing more controversial military tensions over the region, in order to prove both its nautical supremacy and also its ongoing resolve over controlling the economically valuable South Seas waterway.

East - West Tensions over a Valuable Prize
China is busily building up reefs in the Spratly group of South Sea Islands, filling in shallows with small airfields and military facilities. This, of course, has further added to an already tense U.S./China relationship. Earlier this month, the United States deployed their B-52 bombers near the contended Chinese South Sea island bases, ratcheting up America’s apparent challenge to China over the issue. America also sent a Destroyer last October, the USS Lassen, to the widely used Asian waterway, which represents a mammoth $5 trillion dollars in ship-borne trade through the remote region, located about 500 miles from China’s coastline.

Obama recently did some “Saber rattling” while in Manila for the ASEAN summit, in front of two donated Philippine Navy ships from the United States. The Peoples Republic of China’s Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, has refused to comment, though, on the issue of the disputed Islands; especially at the two Asian summits. ASEAN Defense Ministers recently accommodated  China’s silence on the South Sea dispute, bowing to the powerful superpower, by intentionally not mentioning the crisis over the disputed islands at the ASEAN summits traditional ending statement to its multinational attendee’s.

President Obama’s address to the Philippine people while visiting in Manila this Nov. - "You can count on the United States. My visit here underscores our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to the freedom of navigation." Associated Press

Even with the U.S. presidents, military posturing over the South Seas territorial confrontation, America is still very unlikely to provoke a superpower like China much further over a small group of Asian islands. China, Russia, and the United States are ultimately going to have to combine their military might closer together, in order to have any chance of wiping out their common enemies of foreign and domestic terrorism. Just as in Crimea’s ultimately tolerated annexation by Russia, and the West’s new unofficial tolerance of President Bashar al-Assad’s “Evil” regime in Syria – The Four Asian nations whose claims on the South Sea Islands were totally overrun by China, may ultimately end up fending for themselves without much future help from the West over the disputed Islands.

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