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A Look Ahead To The Flash Point In The South China Sea


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Close to half of the world's maritime traffic passes through the South China Sea. Vast deposits of oil and natural gas are believed to lie beneath the ocean floor there. These waters are also the scene of bitter international rivalry as at least five smaller countries find themselves in lopsided disputes with China.

The regional giant claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, and it's used its rapidly growing military power to push aside its neighbors. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have turned to the United States for protection, which makes the South China Sea a potential flashpoint, where arguments over fishing, mineral rights or sovereignty could quickly escalate.

As part of our series Looking Ahead, we focus today on the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea, which raise serious questions about China's role in the region, its goals in claiming this territory, and what, if anything, the United States ought to do. If you have questions about rivalries in the South China Sea, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Jim Sollisch on learning about his younger self through the discovery of thank you notes he wrote when he was 13. But we begin with Michael Sullivan, a journalist and former NPR senior Asia correspondent. He joins us now via Skype from Bangkok. Michael, good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.


CONAN: And how nervous are China's neighbors?

SULLIVAN: Oh, they've been nervous for a long time, Neal, but the most recent flare-up in the region ironically was not between China and one of its neighbors but between Taiwan and the Philippines. Earlier this month a Philippine coast guard vessel opened fire on a Taiwanese fishing boat in what the Philippines calls its exclusive economic zone, killing one fisherman.

Taiwan has reacted angrily. The Philippine president gave what he called a personal apology, but Taiwan said it wasn't satisfied, and it sent naval vessels to protect its fishermen in the region. And this is between two U.S. allies in the region, Neal. I'm pretty confident this one will get worked out, but you know, the biggest problem, as you mentioned, is the continued tension between mainland China, which essentially claims all of the South China Sea and to a lesser extent parts of the East China Sea as its own, much to the chagrin, as you said, of others like the Philippines, like Vietnam, like Malaysia, who have their own claims.

CONAN: And are these issues of legality? We hear the claims being discussed, China claiming its map from the 1940s and its historical claims going back 2,000 years. We hear Vietnam talking about its historical rule of the two groups of islands in dispute, the Spratlys and the Paracels. We hear of the Philippines say wait a minute, we're the ones who are closest to these spits of land on which nobody lives.

Or is an issue of power, China has it, and the other people don't?

SULLIVAN: Well, you know, these are overlapping claims, and everyone can draw their own map, and everyone can say where their territory ends, but you know, they're all neighbors here, and China has the biggest stick, yeah, and they've been very assertive in the last 10 years or so at making their arguments.

I mean they've been sending fishing boats, they've been sending maritime patrol boats, they've been sending naval vessels, all probing into these regions that Vietnam and the Philippines and to a lesser extent Malaysia have all claimed as their own. And they've been pushing pretty hard.

And, you know, right now this week I think you see the Philippines president announcing that the Philippines is going to spent $2 billion on upgrading their naval capacity so they can protect their own territory. But at the same time, you know, their navy is woefully inadequate to this task. And right now at the same time you have the president saying this, you have some Chinese fishing boats and supported by a naval vessel that are sitting on the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by the Philippines.

So, you know, the Chinese are pressing, pressing, pressing. They're pushing, pushing, pushing, and I think the neighbors think that they have to come up with some sort of a solution collectively to try to counter this.

CONAN: Collectively because - let's bring another voice into our conversation, Chris Johnson, a senior advisor and Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former senior China analyst for the CIA. He's with us here in Studio 42. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

CHRIS JOHNSON: Glad to be here.

CONAN: And there is desire to work collectively because individually, of course, they can't stand against China, and collectively they also seek to bring in one other player, the United States.

JOHNSON: That's right, absolutely. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has come to realize that given the assertive behavior that we've been seeing coming out of China, that they have to hang together on these. The problem, of course, is that not all ASEAN countries are claimants to these various islands.

And many of those countries who aren't claimants are - also have close political and economic ties to China. And so as we saw last summer at the ASEAN regional forum, China was able to use its economic and political leverage over Cambodia to divide ASEAN on this topic and to keep it from being raised, much to the chagrin of the key ASEAN claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines, and also somewhat to the frustration of the U.S.

CONAN: And the United States has said we want a collective code of conduct, and that, well, sent a few Chinese admirals' heads bouncing off the ceiling. They were furious.

JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. For the Chinese, it's a very simple matter of the United States not interfering in this issue, and the reason why they don't want the U.S. interfering is because they realize that the U.S. can be a game-changer in terms of support to these critical nations.

Of course China also makes the case that the U.S. is not showing impartiality when it suggests that there should be a broad code of conduct. Generally speaking, U.S. policy of, course, has been to state that we do not take a position on the ultimate issue of sovereignty, but we do take a position on freedom of navigation in the area and on maintaining a safe sort of passage for commerce.

The Chinese, of course, see this as sort of sticking up for our allies and encouraging behavior by Vietnam and the Philippines that they would never undertake given China's comparative military might without that implicit U.S. backing.

CONAN: And Michael Sullivan, the United States, of course, has made a great show of its pivot to the Pacific, in particular increasing forces, well, some degree being sent to places like Australia. Is that making any significant difference in the calculation, as Chris Johnson was just suggesting, of the Philippines and Vietnam?

SULLIVAN: I think the Philippines and Vietnam are hopeful that that will be one thing that happens, that we'll see a greater U.S. presence in the region. But, you know, the U.S. naval presence in Asian waters has been there for the past half-century. And some would argue, I think, that China's actions are undermining the U.S. strategic interests in the region as well, because as mentioned before, you know, the freedom of navigation is a big one, and that's freedom of navigation for U.S. warships in the region too, right?

So that's something that the U.S. is very keen on maintaining, and I think that's something that the Chinese are very keen on curtailing.

CONAN: And Chris Johnson, as we look at this maybe from the point of view of a Chinese admiral who's got all these new muscles to flex, the navy is growing by leaps and bounds every year - he looks out from his bases in China and sees a string of U.S. allies, from South Korea, Japan, all the way down to Australia, limiting, bottling in his forces and their access to the wide waters of the Pacific. This is part of their calculation too.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. You know, there's a discussion within Chinese naval doctrinal circles at this point over this exact issue, of the so-called first island chain, which is that area there through Japan and all the way down southward, and a desire for Chinese navy, if it wants to have a truly blue-water capability at some point in the future, to break out of that.

And they see the U.S. naval presence and its allies' naval presence as a constraint on that ability to maneuver.

CONAN: Interesting. First chain of islands? What's the second chain of islands?

JOHNSON: The outer chain, so that would be Guam and that area beyond the Japanese main islands.

CONAN: And I understand there's a third chain.

JOHNSON: Yes, which is even further out.

CONAN: Hawaii.

JOHNSON: Well, there's that one too. And this has been what's quite interesting about these recent claims. So for example, we had some claims in Chinese official media a week or so ago that perhaps Japan doesn't even have sovereignty over some of its own main islands, the Ryukyu and Okinawa, for example.

And so that's posited some people to joke that, you know, next will Hawaii become a Chinese core interest? We'll have to see going forward.

CONAN: Michael Sullivan, this expansiveness is accompanied by a kind of nationalism that is changing China.

SULLIVAN: It's not just China, Neal. I think, you know, Vietnam is very nationalistic, and Vietnam fears China. It's been invaded by China many times before. And the Vietnamese are, you know, using this as a nationalistic issue to take their own public's attention off their economic problems. And everyone does this in these times, right? If you're having economic problems, find a bogeyman.

And the Vietnamese are doing that with China. The Vietnamese are also so scared that they're about to take possession of - I think it's six Russian diesel Kilo-class submarines to patrol their area. So you know, the tension, it's being ratcheted up gradually, not just on the Chinese side but on the side of the lesser nations who are interested in this, and it's - it's a real problem because, you know, the more assets you get out there in the region, the more likely they are to bump into each other or to have an accident, and that accident could then escalate, and then who knows what happens after that.

I mean in the East China Sea right now, I see that the Japanese and the Chinese maneuvers right now as being especially alarming because, you know, you get a lot of naval craft, and you get aircraft in a small area. Who knows what can happen?

CONAN: Chris Johnson, this is over the Senkaku, as the Japanese call them, Islands, a place that they have controlled for many years, seemingly without Chinese objection, until there was an attempt by I guess the former mayor of Tokyo to purchase them as a poke in the eye to China. The government seized them to prevent that from happening, and that was seen as a poke in the eye by China. Riots ensued, anti-Japanese riots, in Beijing.

JOHNSON: Yes, that's correct, and I think the China strategy on this is quite simple at this point. The message to the regional neighbors, all the claimants of these disputed territories, is a simple one, and it's basically that China accepts the status quo as it currently sits. If, however, one of the other claimants chooses to attempt to change that status quo through one of these actions, China in turn will respond by changing the status quo in a way that's very unfavorable to that other claimant.

And we've seen this in the Scarborough Shoal with the Philippines, and they're definitely trying to undermine Japanese administrative control in the Senkaku Diaoyu Islands currently.

CONAN: So the Philippines sent out an unarmed craft, and the Chinese sent an armed craft.

JOHNSON: That's right, and this has been another development that's been interesting to watch, is up until now largely China has been using these unarmed China maritime surveillance forces with PLA navy at some distance, in case necessary. Now we're seeing those naval vessels increasingly being part of this process.

So they're integrating the response between these unarmed maritime surveillance and other ships of sort of Chinese maritime patrol and the naval ships to increase their presence in the area.

CONAN: If you have questions about the dangerous rivalries in the South China Sea, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The South China Sea serves as a microcosm of sorts for China's growing influence and power around the world, its neighbors including a number of close U.S. allies, involved in a series of standoffs over who owns a wide swath of the South China Sea and the islands and the mineral deposits that come with it.

China lays claim to a long, U-shaped area off its southeastern coast, much of which is also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, smaller areas also claimed by Brunei and Malaysia. The area is a potential flashpoint. Several countries look to the U.S. for protection.

If you have questions about rivalries in the South China Sea, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests, as we look ahead: Michael Sullivan, a journalist who covers Asia and former senior Asia correspondent for NPR News. Also with us, Chris Johnson, senior adviser and Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former senior China analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency. Ngo-Vinh Long is a professor of Asian history at the University of Maine. His piece, "Unhappy Neighbors on the South China Sea," ran in the Cairo Review earlier this year. He joins us now via Skype from his home in Bangor, Maine. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

NGO-VINH LONG: Thank you.

CONAN: And I understand you have a background in cartography. You made maps for the Americans in South Vietnam. You're familiar with the geopolitics of the region. Disputes between China and Vietnam over the South China Sea are not new.

LONG: No, not new at all. And I made military maps - with a team of course - from 1959 to 1963. That's very detailed maps, one over 25,000, which is one - 25 kilometers for ever meter of maps, and it's very detailed maps.

CONAN: And the Chinese map that is causing so much trouble, well, it depends on how many dots you want to count, whether it's the nine-dot map or the 11-dot map. And in either case, it's a cause of some dispute.

LONG: Yes, it was something that a Chinese scholar there in the Republican Period came up with, 1947. It used to be 11 dots, and recently, it was reduced to nine dots because of a negotiation between Vietnam and China in what was known as the North Sea of Vietnam.

CONAN: And, again, we hear the arguments between China and Vietnam expressed often in terms of rival claims. The Vietnamese say they have controlled the Spratlys and the Paracels. Of course, they use different names for these islands. For centuries - the Chinese claim goes back to, well, their imperial days. They say they discovered these places initially.

Yet it's also a question of brute power, and China has it, and Vietnam has been forced to retreat back - as far back as 1974 from some of these claims.

LONG: This is not just a case between Vietnam and China. This is a global issue. Ninety percent of worldwide trade happens by sea, and up to 60 percent of this global seaborne trade goes to Southeast Asia - I mean, through the South China Sea.

The fact that China has claimed most of it, you know, which is neither historical nor legal, has created incredible tension in the area. So I think we should look at it from the security point of view, from the free passage point of view, and not just from rivalry between Vietnam and China, not between ASEAN countries and China.

CONAN: And getting back to that free passage point of view, Chris Johnson, that is where the United States comes in. No, it does no claim or dispute - takes no sides in who owns what, but the South China Sea, the United States says, is international waters, and all countries - i.e., American aircraft carriers - can sail through there with no problem.

JOHNSON: That's absolutely right, and the challenge, of course, for the United States sometimes in these issues is that we are not a signatory to the U.N. Convention of the Law and the Sea, which the Chinese frequently like to point out when we get involved in this issue. But these broader comments or better issues regarding freedom of navigation and freedom of trade within this strategic waterway is an important issue.

And it's frankly allowed the United States to play a role on this issue in a way that we otherwise might not be able to.

CONAN: What does it say about Chinese ambitions in that part of the world and the world in general? As we look at their behavior - as their neighbors would certainly say - they've been bullies.

JOHNSON: Well, this is the $64,000 question. Prior to this period in kind of 2009 and 2010, where we started to see this Chinese assertiveness, there had been a decade-long process prior to that where China was very much willing to shelve these disputes and to engage in sort of smile diplomacy with Southeast Asia.

This was probably due to a couple of factors. At that time, from the mid-1990s up until 2008, China was very focused primarily on the possibility for conflict across the Taiwan Strait, as what they perceive as independence forces were in charge in Taiwan. With the election of President Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan in 2008 and the return of the KMT to power, China began to feel that that prospect of conflict was much less likely, and they began to turn their gaze southward again.

And in their interpretation, they saw that the Vietnamese in particular - but also the Filipinos - had been making considerable gains in terms of advancing their claims while China had been distracted on the Taiwan Strait front.

CONAN: And Michael Sullivan, as this dispute continues, the calculation of China's neighbors also has to be that as China gains increasing strength in the region, their side of this dispute is going to become more and more difficult to pursue. We see the Philippines taking their case against, again, under the Law of the Sea Treaty, to the United Nations. Surely, they don't have a great deal of hope that that's going to resolve the situation.

SULLIVAN: No, but that's, I think, where the U.S. can come in as the sort of big brother, the paternalistic big brother to both the Philippines and Vietnam. I mean, we've seen recent U.S. ship visits to Vietnam, including one to Cam Ranh Bay not long ago. And, you know, of course to have Subic Bay in the Philippines, as well. And I think the more that the Philippines and the Vietnamese feel boxed in, the more likely they are to allow or request that the U.S. have more of these, you know, very public shows of force, if you will, to show that, you know, we do have - even though we don't have our own power, really, we do have some powerful friends who are willing to back us up should it come to that.

CONAN: Ngo-Vinh Long, many in this country would find it ironic that Vietnam might turn to the United States.

LONG: Well, it's ironic, but in a way, it's not. As early as the early '40s, Vietnam already tried to turn to the United States. But at that time, the United States read Vietnam incorrectly and thought that Vietnam belonged to the so-called communist world. And so the United States returned the French - with the help of the British, of course - returned the French to Vietnam. And that created what was known as the First Indochina War, followed by the Second Indochina War and then the Third Indochina War, and here we are.

We are inheriting the problems of those three wars, in a way. But...

CONAN: Go ahead.

LONG: But I - you know, I mean, when we talk about the United States, I would like to say something that - to reinforce what had just been said before. The United States - when the United States played the China card, the United States really helped China quite a lot. Without the United States, without the (unintelligible), China would not have been where it is today.

So people might talk about the United States as a big brother to the Philippines and big brother to Japan (unintelligible), but the United States was also, you know, a mentor, so to speak, with China. China became increasingly strong economically and militarily because of U.S. support. And China saw that, especially China saw that since the mid - around 2005, 2006.

And then, you know, in 2008, China decided to try to feel out the United States. And China demanded, you know, (unintelligible) that, you know, the United States would somehow withdraw east of Hawaii and allow China to control the western Pacific. Well, the United States rejected that. Then China threw a temper tantrum and continually escalated the tension in the region.

So, in a way, this fight is between China and the United States, because China wants the United States to make certain concessions to China, and if the United States makes certain concessions to China, then that would intimidate the other countries in the area, in the region. And I think this is why China is doing that.

CONAN: Chris Johnson, does China see these as American proxies? Is this a fight eventually with the United States?

JOHNSON: Well, ultimately, obviously, I think they have persuaded themselves that these other countries would not be doing what they're doing without implicit U.S. support or directed U.S. support. Some in China, of course, believe that the U.S. are - is the ones that are driving the process with this and are the ones that are pushing these other countries to do things that they otherwise wouldn't. This is the so-called sort of theory of containment within China, that this is all the U.S.' master plan to somehow contain China's rise and development.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on this conversation. We'll go to Richard(ph), and Richard's on the line with us from San Diego.

RICHARD: Hi. My question is for the gentleman who - the UNCLOS, the United Nations Comment - Conference on the Law of the Sea. I've worked in South - Western Pacific for quite some time as part of the military, and I've heard many briefs from State Department officials, as well as military officials.

And one of the conflicting questions I always have is why the United States has chosen not to sign that treaty. Because by us not signing it, does not - does that not put us on a lower stand from which to preach to China that you can't do these things? And if we did sign it, wouldn't it give more legitimacy to the smaller nations to go to the U.N. with a complaint?

CONAN: Why haven't we signed the law of the sea conference, Chris Johnson?

JOHNSON: Well, I think it's quite simple. There are a bunch of folks primarily in the Senate who believe that this is an unfair sort of restriction on U.S. sovereignty to be a member of this body and what we're able to do. And it has been stalled for some period - a considerable period of time simply because of that. There are some key members of Congress who don't want to see this thing pass.

Interestingly, now-Secretary of State, but then-Senator Kerry made a push for this last year, trying to get it. And I wouldn't be surprised to see us try again because it does somewhat damage our credibility in these discussions with the various claimants when they're all members of this treaty and we are not.

CONAN: Chris Johnson - and thanks very much for the call, Richard.


NGO VINH LONG: May I add to that?

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead, please.

LONG: Yeah. I - to be fair to United States, although the United States has not signed the treaty, the United States helped negotiate it. The Americans (unintelligible) were very important in trying to shape the U.N. law of the sea. And the United States has consistently followed the law of the sea, although it has not signed it.

CONAN: Ngo Vinh Long is a professor of Asian history at the University of Maine. You also just heard from Chris Johnson, senior adviser and Freeman Chair in the China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Also with us, journalist Michael Sullivan, former senior Asia correspondent for NPR News. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Scott(ph). Scott's with us in Louisville.

SCOTT: Thank you. Yeah. First of all, I just want to say, I hate that you're going off the air because I've loved your show for many, many years. So...

CONAN: Thank you.

SCOTT: ...good luck to whatever you're doing. And kind of the two questions I have is, you know, Japan has recently been having a lot of internal discussions about changing their constitution for being able to rearm itself for self-defense, maritime defense, so forth and so on. A lot of this is, of course, directly related to this, you know, back and forth between China.

But I'm wondering about what are the kind of the repercussions in the area about Japan rearming itself, and secondarily, perhaps, most importantly for us, is what would U.S. policy be? I know, historically, we've been against Japan rearming itself, but now I think, you know, we may be leaning towards it.

CONAN: We talked about Chinese nationalism, Chris Johnson. Clearly, there's a resurgence of Japanese nationalism, too, in the election of their new prime minister and their policies.

JOHNSON: Absolutely correct. And this is one of the major challenges that we're facing as the United States at this particular point is this history, these issues of history in particular. And Prime Minister Abe and, more importantly, some other officials in Japan and their approach to these issues have been inflaming tensions, in some ways making the job of the Chinese, if you will, easier in that almost speaking right out of the Chinese textbook on Japanese aggression.

And it damages the ability to keep harmony between our allies. Japan and South Korea relations are now at one of the worst points they've been in some time. And anytime there is dysfunction in the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral security and diplomatic relationship, that makes China's goals and ambitions in the area a little bit easier.

We'll have to see what they're going to do. I think from the U.S. policy point of view, to answer the caller's question, it would depend very much on how the Japanese would choose to reinterpret the constitution, you know, whether or not they would go straight toward some sort of, you know, broad rearmament or rather it would rather be simply to assert - reassert this right of collective self-defense, which, of course, would have a very close component of cooperation with the United States in the region.

CONAN: Michael Sullivan, as we look ahead, is there any - we talk about this region as a flash point. Is there any predictable flash point coming up?

SULLIVAN: Ooh. Predictable? I'm not quite sure. I mean, one of the things that puzzles me about this whole thing is that, lately, China, with the rest of Southeast Asia, has been pursuing this soft power line of thinking, and it's worked very well recently. Most recently, I think they've started to shift their idea in Myanmar - in Burma, in particular - because, of course, of the U.S. and other Western countries getting a toehold in there for the first time in a long time.

I think the softly, softly approach that the Chinese are now using on land, they might be able to actually use, you know, when it comes to the South China Sea, once they get the white water navy that they want, they have. They can say, right, we're here. We're strong. This is the deal. Then maybe they can argue from a position of greater strength, see the U.S. as less of a threat and feel better about themselves and about everyone getting along, and that would lessen tensions.

But I also know that, you know, the Vietnamese - I remember vividly two port visits. There was one port visit in Vietnam that I saw, the Chinese warship that came on a goodwill visit. And the reaction to that visit by ordinary Vietnamese was - they were vehemently opposed to the idea of a Chinese ship in their harbor. Now, about six months later, a U.S. warship came, and the Vietnamese were, yeah, right, OK. You know, they used to be our enemy, but now, they're our friend. We very much like them, and they can help us in our dispute with China. So the antipathy that's out there for China in many countries, I think, is growing. You mentioned Japan. But here in Southeast Asia, I think it's growing as well when it comes to the issue of the South China Sea and the resources that are under it.

And I think the Spratlys, you know, the Paracels, that over the years, Neal, I mean, every year or so, we hear about several hundred Vietnamese fishermen being detained by Chinese boats. At some point, you know, there is the potential for the Vietnamese to respond to that asymmetrically. And all of a sudden, we have a problem. So, yeah, I think if there was going to be a problem, it would probably be between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. I don't see it happening between the Filipinos and the Chinese just because I don't think that level of antipathy is there, nor that level of nationalism there in the Philippines as it is in Vietnam.

CONAN: Michael Sullivan, Chris Johnson and Ngo Vinh Long, thank you all very much for your time today. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.