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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Inside Cover: 2 Jul 2010

Inside Cover: 2 Jul 2010

It is time for the region’s leaders to recall the adage that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Otherwise, their nations are in danger of suffering massive collateral damage in an elephantine conflict that may crush their dreams of progress for decades.

If you think that is hyperbole, then recall Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s incendiary declaration at the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum that the United States is going to get directly involved in the South China Sea’s festering territorial disputes.

In Washington, her explosive statement was viewed as an “in your face” to Chinese ambitions in the region.

Beijing was incandescent with rage. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called Clinton’s remark an “attack” on China and “a cause for grave concern”.

Yang said internationalising the South China Sea conflict to include the US will “only make matters worse and make it more difficult to solve”.

The US should butt out before it draws smaller nations into a nasty dogfight.

This is not anti-Americanism. It is merely a plea to keep the issue in a regional context.

If China sought to meddle in the analogous territorial dispute between Cuba and America over ownership of Guantanamo Bay, Washington would go bonkers.

By the same token, the South China Sea problem must be solved by the region’s six claimants: China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan – and no one else.

The key players are China and Vietnam.
Vietnam claims its immediate offshore waters, plus the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. China goes further and claims the entire South China Sea, calling it a “core interest” that affects its national security.

Washington cannot buy this. The state department’s Scot Marciel said Beijing cannot claim areas not derived from land territory. “Such maritime claims are not consistent with international law.”

When Beijing threatened American oil and gas giants seeking to work with Vietnamese partners, Marciel said: “We object to any effort to intimidate US companies.”

All fine, except a tad hypocritical since the US is the only major power not to have signed the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

Meanwhile, Washington and Hanoi have bolstered defence ties and will hold their first senior military-to-military talks later this year. Now comes Clinton’s declaration that the US will proactively assert its right to freedom of navigation by cultivating a strategic partnership with Vietnam.

Beijing labels this part of an American “attack” that involves siding with Hanoi in the volatile offshore dispute.

As Washington’s influential Nelson Report noted on July 27: “The US and China are increasingly on a slippery slope of strategic conflict.”

Indeed, the two elephants are jockeying for position, and it is a horrible prospect that portends no good for Vietnam, nor any other country in the region.

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