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South China Sea Tensions Overshadow New US Military Engagement

  • Brian Padden

Aerial view of Pagasa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines (file photo)

Aerial view of Pagasa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines (file photo)

U.S. plans to send additional military personnel to Australia in the coming years have drawn mixed responses among Southeast Asian leaders who are wary of increasing the possibility of military confrontation.

But analysts say ongoing territorial disputes about the South China Sea are an even greater worry.

During a news conference following the East Asia Summit, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did not say whether he supported or opposed the agreement between Australia and the United States to station up to 2,500 American forces in Australia in the next few years. He only said he was reassured that the U.S. is committed to maintaining peace in the region.

Yudhoyono said he met with President Obama to officially hear that the U.S. has no intention of disturbing any of Australia's neighboring countries.

Despite the public ambivalence of some leaders, Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia analyst with the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said privately, most regional leaders welcomed the news.

Thayer said the United States is especially appreciated when it comes to dealing with China about territorial disputes in the South China Sea. He said ASEAN countries need the involvement of the U.S. military.

“They are slowly improving their capability but they need the majors powers to balance eachother out," Thayer said. "And so the U.S. presence, as I say, provides the oxygen, allows them to breath, have a central role, knowing that China has to take into account the fact that the U.S. is engaged in the region.”

The South China Sea is of tremendous strategic importance to world shipping and is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia all hold competing claims to parts of the sea.

China claims the entire South China Sea and says any dispute should be handled on a bilateral basis only. The United States takes no position on individual claims, but supports a multilateral approach to settle disputes based on international maritime law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Thayer said of the 18 countries attending the summit, only Burma and Cambodia did not raise concerns about territorial disputes in the South China Sea and nearly all the Southeast Asian leaders supported President Obama's position.

“The White House take-out on this [is] you basically had most countries reaffirming the core features of Obama, the international law, the non-use of force, U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, freedom and safety of navigation," he said.

Thayer sees a connection between the increased U.S. military engagement and ASEAN's growing unity on how to resolve territorial disputes in the region.

David Carden , U.S. Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, denied that the United States is trying assert a show of strength to influence ASEAN.

“I do not believe there is any reason to combine those issues - however tempting it might be for others who feel the United States is putting its' position forward. I don't think that is the case at all,” the ambassador said.

Carden said Washington is only playing a supportive role to ASEAN's longstanding leadership in negotiating a code of conduct with China.